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5 Graduate Programs in Bioscience students awarded prestigious HHMI fellowships

Five students in UCLA’s Graduate Programs in Bioscience have been awarded prestigious Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study from Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a remarkable number that represents 10 percent of the Gilliam fellowships awarded this year.

The fellowships were created to ensure that a diverse and highly trained workforce is prepared to assume leadership roles in science, particularly as college and university faculty who have the responsibility to develop the next generation of scientists. As such, the number of awards reflects not only the depth of scientific talent within UCLA’s Graduate Programs in Bioscience but the program’s overall commitment to attracting graduate students from underrepresented groups.

“Diversity is a pillar of the Graduate Programs in Bioscience, and we’re extremely proud that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has recognized so many of our students and their faculty mentors,” said Greg Payne, Ph.D., director of the programs. “The awards reflect the students’ achievements and potential, and equally call attention to the scientific contributions and commitment to inclusion of their faculty advisers.”

Particular credit goes to to the individual program directors and admission committees as well as to Diana Azurdia, Ph.D., the programs’ associate director for diversity and inclusion, Payne said. Under their leadership, the programs’ diversity efforts have expanded and broadened in scope. The result has been an increase to 23% average enrollment of students from underrepresented groups – from 16% in the programs’ first class in 2013 to 26% for the 2017-18 academic year.

The 2018 Gilliam Fellows from UCLA are:

Marcus Alvarez

          Home Area: Genetics & Genomics
          Ph.D. Program: Human Genetics
          PI: Paivi Pajukanta

Alvarez studies the genomics of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. His goal is to become a principal investigator in an academic setting.

Raquel Aragon

          Home Area: Cell & Developmental Biology
          Ph.D. Program: Molecular Biology
          PI: Luisa Iruela Arispe

Aragón’s research bridges her love of mechanobiology, the study of how physical forces affect biological processes, with understanding wound healing within the vascular endothelium.  As a Latina in STEM, she knows the importance of seeing oneself represented within academia, so she hopes to be an empowering figure for others as a professor.

Taylor Brown

          Home Area: Immunity, Microbes & Molecular Pathogenesis
          Ph.D. Program: Molecular Biology
          PI: Elissa Hallem

Brown’s research involves investigating the associations between skin-penetrating human-parasitic nematodes and bacteria. Through her graduate work, she hopes to find new drug targets that will help prevent parasitic nematode infection in humans. Her long-term career goals include teaching science at a major research university and running a research laboratory focused on understanding host-pathogen interactions.

Jessica Ochoa

          Home Area: Biochemistry, Biophysics & Structural Biology
          Ph.D. Program: Molecular Biology
          PI: Todd Yeates

Ochoa’s work bridges molecular biology, chemistry, bacterial physiology, protein design and pure geometry in order to better understand subcellular organization and to engineer novel protein-based materials. She hopes to empower future students, especially women and students of color, much in same way her past mentors did for her.  She also hopes to create an engaging learning environment, generate unique research opportunities, and more important, help diversify STEM fields.

Lauren Thurlow

          Home Area: Biochemistry, Biophysics & Structural Biology
          Ph.D. Program: Molecular Biology
          PI: Tracy Johnson

Thurlow’s research investigates the regulation of SNF2, a ubiquitous chromatin remodeling protein that is implicated in development and cancer.  She hopes to become a professor and use her position to follow her passion of increasing diversity in STEM, including through the pursuit of research opportunities for students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds.

*The Graduate Programs in Bioscience is a consortium of 10 “Home Areas” and their affiliated Ph.D. programs, organized to provide the best possible research training and professional development for graduate students pursuing doctorates in the life and biomedical sciences. The Home Areas span the David Geffen School of Medicine and the Division of Life Sciences.

By: Tami Dennis

Photo: Five students in UCLA’s Graduate Programs in Bioscience represent 10 percent of the Gilliam Fellowships awarded this year. Shown here are the students with their faculty mentors. From left: Tracy  Johnson, Lauren Thurlow, Luisa Iruela-Arispe, Raquel Aragon, Jessica Ochoa, Todd Yeates, Marcus Alvarez, Paivi Pajukanta, Elissa Hallem, Taylor Brown. (Credit: Greg Payne)