Fifty-Nine RISE Scholars Learn About ‘Mind-blowing’ Science

RISE scholars at UCR received full scholarships and spent about 10 weeks conducting research in various labs. The RISE experience is designed to stop STEM career attrition.

RISE symposium presenters (left to right) Lauren Bracamonte, Fernando Duran and Alejandro Quiñones on Wednesday, August 24, 2016. The team presented their research findings on the sweet gene family in the Citrus Reticulata Blanco. sandra baltazar martínez

Alejandro Quiñones never gave much thought to how intertwined science and agriculture are.

The 18-year-old biology major going into his second year at UC Riverside spent the summer as a research scholar with UCR’s Research in Science and Engineering (RISE) program. He was one of the 58 RISE undergraduates, plus one high school student, who worked in research labs throughout the campus for about 10 weeks.

RISE scholars at UCR received full scholarships with a combination of funds designated by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the John and Elizabeth Leonard Foundation and UCR. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and Claremont’s Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) were also key supporters, said Susan R. Wessler, a distinguished professor of genetics and the Neil A. and Rochelle A. Campbell presidential chair for innovation in science education.

These 27 scholars were chosen from a pool of applicants who had completed the Dynamic Genome class. In this photo the "garlic group," one of six groups who presented on California crops on August 15, 2016. sandra baltazar martínez

Twenty-seven Dynamic Genome scholars researched and presented on California’s agribusiness on August 15, 2016. In the photo, the “garlic team” presented on the commercial feasibility of using RNA interference to increase white rot resistance in garlic. 
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On a recent Monday, Quiñones, a native of Compton and the first in his family to attend college, stood in front of a conference room alongside his four colleagues, and faced an audience of students, professors, agribusiness experts and College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (CNAS) Dean Kathryn E. Uhrich. His “strawberry” team was one of six groups tasked with making hypothetical proposals on how to improve California crops.

The strawberry team proposed a biodegradable bead with a type of biopesticide to eradicate two-spotted spider mites common in California’s strawberry farms. The team’s proposal was short of a hypothesis, it’s a viable solution, experts in the room said.

Learning how to investigate the regulatory and business part of the agriculture industry was supported by KGI grad students and professors, said Jim Burnette, academic coordinator and co-director of the Dynamic Genome program at UCR’s Neil A. Campbell Science Learning Lab.

“I never realized how much science there is in agriculture. I can apply the science we are learning to real life,” Quiñones said. “Science is really broad. It’s mind-blowing.”

RISE scholar Itamar Patek, 19, presented his research project on mosquitoes and their olfactory function. Patek, is a bio engineering student. "Since he was a kid he liked science. He played with science kits, liked chemistry and watched MythBusters everyday," said Patek's father, Enrico Patek of San Diego.

RISE scholar Itamar Patek, 19, presented his research project on mosquitoes and their olfactory function. Patek is a bio engineering student. “Since he was a kid he liked science. He played with science kits, liked chemistry and watched MythBusters everyday,” said Patek’s father, Enrico Patek of San Diego. Enrico Patek drove from San Diego on August 24, 2016, to watch his son give a presentation during the RISE symposium.

On August 24, Quiñones found himself in front of a bigger audience. It was the end of summer RISE symposium. This time his team presented on sequencing the gene family of Citrus Reticulata Blanco (Fairchild mandarin), found in UCR’s Citrus Variety Collection.

“They have to see [science], they have to experience it,” said Sheldon M. Schuster, professor and president at KGI. “This gives them context, that science is part of all of this.”

RISE offers each summer scholar an opportunity to work within one of its three learning communities: HSI-STEM Pathway Summer Bridge to Research, CNAS Scholars Learning Communities or the Dynamic Genome Scholars program.

The impact science can create on students such as Quiñones is the purpose behind RISE, a program led by Richard A. Cardullo, CNAS HSI-STEM Pathways faculty director, Michael McKibben, CNAS divisional dean of Student Academic Affairs and Wessler, who founded the Dynamic Genome program.

Quiñones participated as a Dynamic Genome scholar. His particular cohort, composed of 27 students, spent nine weeks in research labs, learning everything from genomes to California’s agribusiness. These Dynamic Genome scholars were chosen from a pool of applicants who had completed the Dynamic Genome class (biology 20); participants were awarded stipends plus housing allowances, each valued at $8,500.

Regulatory affairs, crop improvements, pharmaceutical advances and biotechnology are among some of the science-related careers students may consider aside from medical school.

“We want to let them know about these opportunities and jobs while they still have time to modify their career,” said Wessler, who also serves as home secretary for the National Academy of Sciences.

The summer RISE experience is also meant to stop STEM career attrition – particularly among low-income and first generation students – which, according to McKibben, tends to occur within the first two years of college.Companies are reaching out to UCR, wanting a more experienced, trained and diverse workforce. Sixty percent of this year’s CNAS’s class is first-generation, McKibben said.

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All 59 RISE scholars were involved in research. They participated in a symposium on August 24, 2016.
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Scholars worked alongside Burnette, Alex Cortez, academic coordinator for the Dynamic Genome program, and researchers in other labs. Students said these researchers became their mentors, people who positively impacted their experience.

Cortez said for him this work is personal. The opportunity to help students in a lab setting and to see their sense of pride and accomplishment flourish, is a way of giving back.

For Quiñones in particular, this summer opened up many more career possibilities. He hasn’t decided whether he’ll eventually go to grad school or medical school. But what he does know, is that the exposure to science he received this summer strengthened his connection with his mother.

She grew up loving nature as she tended the family farm in Mexico. He just finished researching genomes.

“My mom grew up surrounded by plants and herbs in Michoacán,” Quiñones said. “I never thought I would communicate with her about them. We now both share a common interest: plants.”

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Alejandro Quiñones, center, poses with his research colleagues, Lauren Bracamonte and Fernando Duran, on August 24, 2016. The team presented on sequencing the  gene family of Citrus Reticulata Blanco (Fairchild mandarin), found among UCR’s Citrus Variety Collection. sandra baltazar martínez

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