An outstanding student researcher, Mericien Venzon epitomizes what UCLA undergrads can achieve at the highest level. Her faculty mentor Michael Alfaro, standing next to her, attests to that.
But for Venzon, it turned out to be the class that “changed my life and ... opened up my mind,” she recalled. The pre-med student found in evolutionary biology something that “bridges the gap between basic scientific research and clinical research … It really teaches us to ask the right questions in scientific inquiry.”
Venzon, 22, who previously had envisioned herself as a practicing physician, shifted her ambitions to a career in research. Under the mentorship of associate professor Michael Alfaro of ecology and evolutionary biology, Venzon, a scholar in the Howard Hughes Undergraduate Research Program, is studying the evolutionary development of fish in coral reefs and spent a week in January in Canberra, Australia, presenting her research results to the International Biogeography Society’s early career conference.
The Undergraduate Research Centers, part of the College of Letters and Science, have played a large role in helping to support and celebrate the achievements of Venzon and other students in all disciplines.
“Undergraduate research is a big part of undergraduate education at UCLA, and Mericien Venzon is a terrific example of what can be accomplished by our students,” said Tama Hasson, assistant vice provost for undergraduate research and director of the Undergraduate Research Center-Sciences.
“She is making significant advances as an undergraduate researcher in the Alfaro laboratory, and those advances are recognized to the point where she was invited to present her work at an international conference,” said Hasson, an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology. “She has also been recognized on campus as the recipient of the Science Poster Day Dean’s Prize in 2013 as a junior and the True Bruin Distinguished Senior Award. We are so glad we could help her grow into the successful researcher she has become.”
But working on evolutionary research on two continents is only the beginning of Venzon’s many and varied campus activities, which also encompass volunteer work and competitive athletics.
“She’s characteristic of the best undergraduates that UCLA attracts, with all she can do with a high degree of excellence,” said Alfaro.
Venzon serves as a mentor to freshmen in evolutionary biology. Student reviews of Venzon’s mentorship are glowing, referring to her “prodigious intellect [and] upbeat attitude” and her ability to clearly convey complex ideas.
As a competitive figure skater, she captured national titles. Below, she waits with her coach at the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships in Moscow for her scores after her long program.
Beyond research and public service, the UCLA senior has left her mark on the campus in another way. Venzon helped organize a competitive men’s and women’s figure-skating team. A skater since the age of 4, Venzon competed in the U.S. junior nationals and in the 2009 Philippine Figure Skating nationals, where she was crowned senior women’s champion. She also competed for the Philippines in the Asia Olympic Winter Games in 2010 as well as the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships in Moscow.
The California native was allowed to join the Philippines national team because the island nation was the birthplace of her parents, Merlin, a pediatrician, and Ellen, a registered nurse, of Hayward, Calif. The Venzons emigrated to the United States in 1971.
Although an ankle fracture ended her competitive skating, she still hits the ice when she can, “just for fun," she said. "I’ve tried to channel that energy from skating into other activities.”
“I don’t really know how she does it all, actually,” said Alfaro with a laugh after recounting Venzon’s many activities. “She must not be sleeping very much.”
Venzon’s current research in what Alfaro calls the “basic diversity patterns across the tree of life” centers on marine life in the coral reefs of the western Pacific.
“We’re trying to understand why we see a maximum number of fish species in the Coral Triangle,” she said, the tropical seas in the region comprised of the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. She’s studying some 13,000 fish species, in part, by using computer programs that allow researchers to sort through as many as 1.5 million data points in their studies.
The UCLA senior spent a week last month attending a conference in Australia, where she presented her research results. She was able to apply the scholarship money she won from the True Bruin Distinguished Senior Award to her trip.
“What makes a bacteria cause disease? It’s not really clear how they make that jump,” she said.
The biology major is scheduled to graduate from UCLA in June and will continue to work in the campus lab through the summer. She’s planning to attend medical school with an emphasis on research following graduation.
Venzon said she is confident that she’s made the right decision to set aside her one-time ambition to be a clinical doctor in favor of a life in research.
“I see more potential to help more people in research,” she said. “You might not get the immediate gratification of helping a patient, but, in the long run, you help more people by finding new treatments and cures.”