Students + Campus

UCLA undergraduates honored on Capitol Hill for their research

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Three undergraduates in UCLA’s College of Letters and Science are among 72 outstanding college students selected nationally by the Council on Undergraduate Research to present their original research on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

The UCLA students, who will graduate this June, are:

  • Diana Libuda, majoring in molecular, cell and developmental biology, with a minor in music history. Libuda conducts research on the role of a molecule in spinal cord development. She is from Poway, a suburb of San Diego in the inland north county, and lives in Westwood.
  • Kayvan Zainabadi, majoring in molecular, cell and developmental biology, studies the genetics of cervical cancer. He is from the San Fernando Valley, and currently lives in Westwood.
  • Heather Coleman, double majoring in marine biology and atmospheric sciences. Coleman has done environmental research on coral reefs — something of a misnomer in recent years as the coral has dramatically decreased and algae has increased — and on rare plant species in the Santa Monica Mountains. She is from Pacific Palisades, and lives in Venice.

Diana Libuda: Finding answers

When Diana Libuda would read in her science classes about discoveries, she used to wonder what went on behind the scenes in laboratories that led to the remarkable results that made their way into textbooks.

“I wanted to see research in action,” said Libuda, who has now done a lot more than that. “I wanted to be a part of it.”

Starting her sophomore year, she worked in laboratories, doing gene therapy and DNA replication — and she absolutely loved it.

“I thought it was the most amazing thing to see research suddenly come alive,” Libuda recalled. “I realized that I love asking questions; I love asking why and how.”

She also came to see how much work is involved.

“Things you spend months working on may end up being one sentence in a journal article,” she said.

Still, she was hooked.

“I realized what I want to do with my life,” said Libuda, who has won numerous accolades for her outstanding scholarship, including a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship and a Barry Goldwater scholarship. She plans to earn her Ph.D. in biomedical science, to have her own research lab, and to be a scientist and professor.

Karen Lyons, UCLA associate professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology, in whose lab Libuda works, is very confident Libuda will succeed.

“Diana is easily on a par with graduate students,” Lyons said. “She picks up techniques quickly, works independently and takes a hypothesis-driven approach. Diana’s questions and comments have really helped to focus the efforts of her project, and have substantially improved the rigor with which these experiments are being done. Her research reports are beautifully written. I am certain that she will be a top student at any program, and she will make us very proud.”

Libuda returns Lyons’ praise.

“It’s been wonderful working in Karen’s lab,” she said. “A lab is like a family. She is so caring, and concerned about my goals and about my future. Working in her lab has taught me how to ask questions scientifically, and exposed me to new research techniques. I am very grateful for the opportunities and the guidance she and the other members of the lab have given me.”

Libuda is investigating the role of a molecule called BMP-11 in spinal cord development, and characterizing its function by analyzing molecular markers for distinct cell types in the developing spinal cord. Her preliminary results indicate the molecule plays a role in motor neuron differentiation. She is co-author of a research article that has been accepted for publication by the peer-reviewed journal, Development.

“A better understanding of how growth factors such as BMP-11 orchestrate the development of the spinal cord is a necessary step in developing effective therapies for the treatment of spinal cord injuries and congenital defects,” Libuda said.

After her graduation in June, Libuda will attend Harvard, where she will earn her Ph.D. in biological and biomedical sciences.

“I want to have a lab that is open to undergraduates,” she said. “If I didn’t have this research experience, I could not have realized what I want to do with my life. I would really like to give other undergraduates the same opportunity.”

Libuda, who also considered attending Stanford and UC Berkeley, speaks highly of her years at UCLA.

“UCLA has one of the most fabulous undergraduate research programs in the country, and offers so many opportunities,” she said. “Professors are wonderfully open about allowing undergraduates to work in their labs. Undergraduates are an important part of the research community at UCLA.”

Her research was an important part of her undergraduate education.

“Research has truly enhanced my ability to think critically and creatively, which is a very important skill that can be applied in questioning any type of doctrine or proposal,” Libuda said. “I truly value this skill. In addition, when I analyze research papers in my courses, I have an appreciation for how the research was done.”

Kayvan Zainabadi: ‘Research really drives me’

When Kayvan Zainabadi started college, he told people he planned to go to medical school and become a doctor.

“People would ask me why, and I realized I didn’t have an answer,” said Zainabadi, a Howard Hughes Research Fellow and recipient of an American Association for Cancer Research Fellowship. “I think that’s true for many students who say they want to go to medical school.”

He has conducted research for three-and-a-half years in the laboratory of Eri Srivatsan, UCLA adjunct associate professor of surgery, and it didn’t take long for Zainabadi to find the passion that he lacked for medical school.

“Research really drives me,” he said. “It’s one of the most mentally stimulating things I’ve experienced. It forces you to use all of your wit, knowledge and imagination. And one of the best aspects is that it allows you to apply what you learn in your classes. It also provides a lot of room for innovation: When you stumble, you have to approach the problem for a different perspective and ask, ‘What can I do differently?’ Asking and answering questions is what research is all about. I love it.”

Cervical cancer, one of the leading causes of death among women, affects an estimated 500,000 women worldwide and 13,000 in the United States annually. In his laboratory, Srivatsan has been working to identify the precise location of the gene responsible for cervical cancer. He has now identified a candidate gene — a tumor-suppressor gene called PACS-1, which acts as a protein transporter.

In addition, he has found that other types of tumors, including liver, kidney and lymphomas, also show aberrant expression of the PACS-1 gene. This implies that the gene also may be involved in other types of cancer, as well as cervical cancer. Srivatsan has genetically mapped the area extensively and isolated genetic markers that could be used for genetic testing.

“The research will help with early detection of cervical cancer,” Zainabadi said.

Pap-smear tests, a great advance in cervical cancer detection, work by obtaining cells from the cervix and searching for cancerous-looking cells. DNA testing, in contrast, will be able to precisely identify people harboring mutations in important genes before cancer develops. Genetic screening could identify people who are at risk for developing the disease, which would allow for earlier treatment and lower mortality rates.

Working in the lab, Zainabadi has studied normal and tumor DNA from patients who develop cervical cancer, attempting to identify the genetic changes that occur in creating a tumor cell. He has also isolated genetic markers and helped in narrowing the region, which at the time he began in Srivatsan’s laboratory encompassed a significantly larger area.

“A tumor-suppressor gene basically tells a cell, ‘Don’t divide.’ If it gets knocked out, the cell begins to divide uncontrollably, which is one of the steps that lead to cancer,” Zainabadi said. “It is really exciting to study tumors and try to elucidate exactly what goes wrong in making a normal cell cancerous. Our work on cervical cancer has shown an area of the genome is frequently mutated in tumor samples. We hypothesized three years back that this region contains a tumor-suppressor gene, and now we think we’ve found the gene. We’ve come a long way.”

Zainabadi has high praise for his faculty mentor.

“Dr. Srivatsan has been one of the most influential persons in my life,” Zainabadi said. “I regard him as a real mentor, meaning that he’s directly involved with not only my work in the laboratory, but also in other aspects of my life. He provides me with encouragement, guidance and direction. I feel that we’ve established a lifelong friendship and any time that I’m in L.A., I’m sure I’ll be paying a visit to his laboratory. And when I become a professor one day, I hope we can collaborate.”

Srivatsan returns the praise, saying, “Kayvan is an independent researcher with high enthusiasm and commitment. He has contributed immensely to our project on the cloning of a human tumor-suppressor gene. He is a co-author of published manuscripts in peer-reviewed journals, and has presented his work at national and international scientific conferences. I am confident he will be a well-respected scientist.”

As a Howard Hughes Research Fellow, Zainabadi receives research support from the Howard Hughes Undergraduate Research Program, and attends a weekly journal seminar to discuss scientific research and to present research findings. His other honors include a Fredrick Waingrow Research Scholarship.

After his graduation this June, Zainabadi plans to attend MIT to earn his Ph.D. in biology. He plans to specialize in genetics and cancer biology.

Heather Coleman: Conservation research

Heather Coleman has spent three years conducting conservation-related research. After she graduates in June, she plans to spend a year doing oceanographic research in the UCLA laboratory of Nicolas Gruber, before earning her Ph.D. in marine ecology.

She plans to become a conservation ecologist or marine biologist, and to influence public policy, perhaps working on habitat destruction, or sewage spills into oceans, for a nonprofit organization.

Coleman’s faculty mentor, biologist Jonathan Levine, said, “Heather is smart, talented and highly motivated to conduct ecological research. I have been most impressed by Heather’s rare ability among undergraduates to conduct first-rate independent ecological research.”

Coleman described Levine as “very helpful,” and said she learned about experimental design and statistics from him.

She conducted research last year in Jamaica, where sewage, over-fishing and hurricanes have severely damaged coral reefs. Coleman studied the effects of a tropical sea urchin on snails sharing the shallow back-reef habitat, in what Levine described as a “well-replicated field experiment to examine the effects of the urchin on snail growth.” She conducted additional experiments and sampling to quantify the impacts of this interaction on nearby seagrass beds, which she said are “critical habitats and nurseries” for species such as fish and lobster, as well as the base of numerous food chains.

This year, she has been examining the impacts of invasive plants in the Santa Monica Mountains, and studying the environments in which native plant species grow best. She has also done research on coral reefs in Akumal, Mexico, south of Cancun, where she said sewage is destroying coral reefs.

She has volunteered at the Ocean Discovery Center in Santa Monica, taking care of fish and teaching about conservation and marine biology.

Coleman speaks highly of her research experiences and her undergraduate education at UCLA.

“UCLA’s been great,” she said. “The Undergraduate Research Centers are amazing — extremely supportive. I have really enjoyed doing research, where not everything is figured out and you don’t know in advance what the answer will be.”

The Council on Undergraduate Research is an independent national association that supports undergraduate student-faculty collaborative research. The council represents faculty and administrators at nearly 1,000 academic institutions.

“Our goal is to make UCLA the leading research university in the nation for undergraduate research,” said Judith L. Smith, vice provost for undergraduate education in the College of Letters and Science. All three of these students have received full-fee scholarships and are part of the College’s Undergraduate Research Scholars Program.

Audrey Cramer, director of UCLA’s Life and Physical Sciences Undergraduate Research Center, said, “When students engage in research, they see the connections between what they are learning in class and what they are discovering in a laboratory — and those insights help them to see learning in anew light.” Cramer said.

Funding new undergraduate research scholarships is the highest priority for Vice Provost Smith. For information about how you can support a UCLA student scholarship, please call Beatrix Richman in the College of Letters and Science development office at (310) 825-8654 or e-mail her at brichman@support.ucla.edu.

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