By Phillip Jordan
Jasmine Gutierrez ’19 and Emelly Ortiz-Villa ’20 had never conducted original, field research before. When they entered the lab at the start of their aquatic microbiology study, the specialized equipment seemed daunting. Their faculty mentor — Adriane Jones, PhD, an assistant professor of biological sciences — walked the students through each step of the project, and demonstrated the tools they’d use to accomplish it.
Fast-forward to today and the duo laughs when they remember those first days of summer. “We were so green,” Gutierrez says. “But that didn’t last long.”
“About halfway through the program, we started taking the initiative,” Ortiz-Villa says. “We’d come up with ideas to test and she’d say, ‘Sounds interesting, go for it!’ Then we’d be explaining our process to her.”
The students attribute their newfound confidence and proficiency to their summer spent monitoring, testing and analyzing the water quality of the L.A. River, and surveying the biology and chemistry of marine protected areas along the Pacific coastline.
Over five hot weeks, the students regularly sampled five sections of the river, from its headwaters in the Sepulveda Basin, through the Glendale narrows and more industrial sections, down to its mouth at the Long Beach Estuary. They used sensors to gather real-time data, and collected samples to evaluate back in the lab — testing nutrients and measuring levels of bacteria, metals and other pollutants.
Thanks to a partnership that Jones established with the environmental nonprofit Los Angeles Waterkeeper, students also worked on a citizen-science “Bio Blitz” project to study the health of marine life and habitats within the Point Dume marine protected area.
“It was really intense, hands-on work, more than I expected I’d get to do,” Ortiz-Villa says. “Especially considering I’d just finished my first year, I feel like I got an opportunity that probably wouldn’t have been available to me at a lot of other schools. I want to pursue marine biology in the future, and I can already say I have some experience now.”
Transformation through research
Research has long been a staple of the University’s Graduate Division, but at Mount Saint Mary’s, original, faculty-mentored research — particularly by students in STEM fields — is the domain of undergraduates, too. This past summer alone, undergrads participated in research projects that took them from L.A.’s waterways to the mountains of Peru (see sidebar).
“We value research at the undergraduate level because it builds knowledge and practical skills,” Jones says. “You can take what you’ve learned in class and apply it to real-world situations with real-world applications. It also builds students’ belief in their ability to do science. They can see themselves as leaders, as future scientists, as future doctors.”
Jones sees this evidence up close. For several years, she has led a marine biology field course on Catalina Island over spring break. Last March, students investigated environmental sustainability practices at the Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina, alongside students and faculty of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. On March 8 — coincidentally International Women’s Day — the Mount’s students went snorkeling to explore marine habitats. The following day, they were studying aquaponics and other sustainable farming methods.
Soon, more STEM students will have access to this kind of experience. In May, Jones and Xiaomei Cheng, PhD, an associate professor of biological sciences, earned a three-year, $200,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) award through the Improving Undergraduate STEM Education program. The professors applied for the grant in collaboration with USC faculty; now, Mount Saint Mary’s students will have expanded entrée to immersive, research-based opportunities at USC’s Wrigley Center — along with peer mentoring and exposure to career and graduate school options in the fields of environmental science and geoscience.
“We know the data,” Jones says. “If students have undergrad research experiences they are more likely to apply for advanced degrees and higher-level research opportunities. So, to us, this is one of the most important pieces of their education.”
Two of Jones’ recent research graduates prove the point. Jennifer Aldous ‘16 heads to Johns Hopkins this fall to begin a master of science in environmental health; Vivianna Sanchez ‘17 was a graduate teaching assistant for USC’s Global Environmental Microbiology summer field course.
Similar doors could one day open for Gutierrez and Ortiz-Villa. Gutierrez’s goal is to become a doctor. Going forward, she wants to get involved in patient-based research programs. As for Ortiz-Villa, she’ll soon apply for a coveted Research Experience for Undergraduates placement through the NSF — to work on an NSF-funded project at a host U.S. research institution.
For now, the two students are preparing their summer findings to present at University academic symposiums, and at this fall’s Southern California Conference for Undergraduate Research.
“No matter what we do in the future,” Gutierrez says, “we’re better prepared now for what comes next. That’s good, because there’s a lot we want to accomplish.”
More summer research at the Mount
Water wasn’t the only subject under the proverbial microscope in recent months. Below is a sampling of additional summer studies conducted by Mount students.
Project: Diabetes and cancer research
Faculty lead: Luiza Nogaj, PhD, associate professor of biological sciences
In a project funded by a National Institute of Health grant, students spent six weeks analyzing the effects of IAPP aggregation (a protein thought to play a role in diabetes). They also examined the role of polyphenolic compounds in preventing the toxic effects of IAPP on human cells, as well as the effect of p53 mutations (the most mutated protein in cancer) on human cell viability.
Project: Investigating DNA damage
Faculty lead: Eric Stemp, PhD, chair of physical sciences and mathematics
Biochemistry students researched oxidative damage to DNA in order to better identify and understand the onset of molecular diseases such as cancer and Parkinson’s. They employed a variety of approaches, including using a transient absorption spectrometer, which allowed them to witness the damage being caused in real-time, as opposed to simply “studying the crime scene” after the fact.
Project: Community health research in the Andes
Faculty leads: Lia Roberts, PhD, associate professor of political science; Sylvine Deprele, PhD, associate professor of physical sciences and mathematics; Luiza Nogaj, PhD
As part of an interdisciplinary research project, students traveled to Peru this August to conduct surveys of women living in Andean communities with high cancer rates. Students prepared by completing a “Politics of Peru” course taught by Roberts, and a “Cancer and Society” course taught by Deprele and Nogaj, to gain the theoretical knowledge and practical lab skills needed for this ambitious project (full story in the Spring 2018 Mount Magazine).
Project: Keck Summer Undergraduate Research
Faculty lead: Paul Green, PhD, professor of philosophy and faculty undergraduate research coordinator
Each summer, a group of undergraduates are selected for this competitive,
10-week program to conduct original research across a variety of disciplines. This year, seven research teams (each comprised of two students and one faculty mentor) broke new ground in areas including intersectional identities in poetry; women’s roles in the American Revolution; mapping Latina literature; addressing traumatic birth experiences; cyanobacteria as an aid in fighting global warming; developing vocational trade opportunities in Los Angeles; and best approaches to helping military veterans transition back to college.
Project: STEM research in D.C., Stanford
Faculty lead: Carol Johnston, PhD, assistant professor of education and administrator of the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarships Program
Cristina Garcia ’18, a math major, served a STAR (STEM Teacher and Researcher) summer research internship at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University, where she worked with a software development team as a data analyst for protein crystallography. Fellow Noyce scholar Stephanie Jimenez ’18, biochemistry, presented her STEM research on air pollution in Los Angeles and Peru at the 2017 Noyce Summit in Washington, D.C.