- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
Undergraduate student Jessica West, Ph.D. candidate Rosanna Kwok, and research specialist Katherine “Katie” Murphy all excel in STEM, an acronym that stands for the academic disciplines of “science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
“Undergraduates who learn cutting-edge research skills in laboratories like Dr. Chiu's set themselves apart from students who only pursue coursework for their degree,” said Steve Nadler, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. “Undergraduate research opportunities are what turn science students into young scientists.”
Early in their undergraduate studies, West and Murphy were accepted into the UC Davis Research Scholars Program in Insect Biology, a vigorous, multi-discipline, research and mentoring program administered by UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology faculty members Jay Rosenheim, Louie Yang and Chiu.
"Including this year, over the first six years that the program has operated, we have admitted 58 students, 36 of which (62%) are women," said Research Scholars Program co-administrator and professor Jay Rosenheim.
"It is asking a lot of freshmen and sophomores to jump into an intensive research experience when they are already challenged by their academic course load," Rosenheim said. "But we've been very gratified with the accomplishments of the students and their demonstrated abilities to develop the skills needed to conduct independent research. Strong effort by the students and close mentorship by campus faculty seem to be key ingredients in student success.”
West, who will receive her bachelor's degree in bochemistry and molecular biology June 12, is the recipient of the 2016 College of Biological Sciences Medal—only one is awarded each year. She also won an “Outstanding Citation for Research Performance.” Although not yet in graduate school, West has already published two peer-reviewed articles. In November 2015, she received the President's runner-up prize at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) meeting in Minneapolis for her talk on the seasonal biology of the spotted wing drosophila, Drosophila suzukii. This fall she will enroll in the Ph.D. program in biochemistry at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. “Over her undergraduate graduate career, Jessica has compiled an impressive list of awards and prizes,” said Chiu, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Kwok, scheduled to graduate from UC Davis in the fall of 2016 with a Ph.D. degree in entomology, has already published six peer-reviewed papers, including one in PLOS Genetics, and has three more in preparation. As part of her requirement for her 2014-16 NIH fellowship, she will leave the Chiu lab in June 2016 to start an internship at OncoMed Pharmaceuticals, Inc. in Redwood City, CA. The internship is her last requirement before graduation from the Entomology Graduate Group.
Like West, Kwok received a President's runner-up prize (2013 ESA meeting) for her presentation on the chronotoxicity of spotted wing drosophila, working with Chiu and Professor Frank Zalom, integrated pest management specialist in the department. “I believe Rosanna will have a very successful career in the biotech industry,” Chiu said.
Murphy, who was accepted into the inaugural class for the Research Scholars Program in Insect Biology, began working in the Chiu lab her sophomore year. When she graduated from UC Davis in 2014 with a bachelor of science degree in neurobiology, physiology, and behavior, she received an “Outstanding Citation for Research Performance.” After graduation, she opted to stay in the Chiu lab to gain more research experience. “Over her career in my lab--from undergraduate research to two years of technician-- Katie has already published four peer-reviewed papers, has one currently in review, and two in preparation,” Chiu said. She is also an author on a provisional patent application for a biopesticide that the Chiu lab developed to target insect pests.
The three young women followed a similar path to get where they are today and strongly encourage others to pursue STEM careers.
Jessica West, who grew up in the Redding area of Northern California, spent her childhood in the small town of Shasta Lake before enrolling at UC Davis.
“I first became interested in science in high school, particularly when I took Advance Placement (AP) Biology,” West recalled. “ I was very curious and always asked a lot of questions in school. What excites me the most is that now I can ask questions that don't yet have answers, and through my research I can work to actually answer them.”
West, who will start her PhD program in biochemistry, molecular and cell biology at Cornell in the fall, says her career goal “ is to teach and conduct research at the university level.”
“I think it's important to start getting girls involved in science at a young age,” West said. “Often young girls are not encouraged to pursue their interests in STEM subjects, but I think that the culture is changing. There are programs like Girls Who Code that seek to get more girls involved in STEM fields that are traditionally male-dominated. If young girls can see that other women like them can succeed in STEM fields, they are more likely to see their goals as attainable.”
Rosanna Kwok grew up in Las Vegas, Nev. –“Yes, people actually live there,” she quipped. “I have always been interested in having a career in science,” she recalled, “and it just took a bit of exploration before I found myself studying the circadian clock under the mentorship of Joanna. The most exciting and motivating thing about being a scientist is knowing that I have the resources to answer the ‘how' and ‘why' questions regarding biological phenomenon.
Her career plan is “to contribute my background and skills to the field of precision therapeutics. It is hard to predict where I will be in a few years, but my goal is to be in an environment where I am constantly challenged and growing as a scientist.”
How to get more young women and girls interested in science? “Thankfully, I do believe that there is a much greater representation of women in sciences than there has in the past,” Kwok said. “With that said, I really believe in the importance of establishing mentoring relationships when it comes to retaining the amount of women in science. I have definitely benefitted from having strong female mentors throughout my scientific career. Many girls are discouraged starting from pursuing their curiosities, or from pursuing certain career paths, and sometimes it takes a more established person in that field to tell them to just go for it, and not apologize for wanting something different than what's expected of them.”
“I believe that in order to get more people in general interested in science, there needs to be more communication between scientists and people who are not in STEM fields,” Kwok said. “Not only will this show that large scientific achievements can be made by real people, it will also help prevent the misconceptions and distrust in science that we sometimes see."
Katherine “Katie” Murphy
Katie Murphy spent her childhood in a small rural town in Lake County, Northern California. “ I grew up on a pear farm, which exposed me to the staggering amount of fruit that goes to waste if the appearance of the fruit is not perfect enough for the grocery store,” she related. “I believe we have a duty as a society to be less wasteful, and therefore I feel inspired to find ways to turn waste into useful materials."
“I discovered my interest in science as a career through a student research position in Dr. Joanna Chiu's lab at UC Davis,” Murphy said. “I believe the greatest challenges that face the world today, such as world hunger, global warming, and the energy crisis, can only be met through technological advancement. I am excited for the opportunity to develop new technologies that use cutting edge science to make the world a better place.”
As an undergraduate research assistant, she was awarded a UC President's Undergraduate Research Fellowship for the summer/fall of 2012 for her project, “Transgenic Yeast as an Organic Pesticide.” She explored the use of RNAi technology in combating the invasive pest, the spotted-wing drosphila, Drosophila suzukii.
Murphy's career plans? “I am pursuing a career in metabolic engineering,” she said. “The technology I hope to develop uses microbes to produce fuels and chemicals from ‘leftovers' such as agricultural waste and non-edible plant materials. This technology will reduce dependency on fossil fuels and provide sustainable energy alternatives."
When asked how society can engage more young women and girls in science, she commented “I think children and adolescents of both genders can benefit from greater exposure to STEM fields. In the media, scientists are often represented as evil, mad, or even downright uncool on TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory. What about a TV show where scientists and engineers are portrayed as heroes?”
The Research Scholars Program in Insect Biology, established in 2011, aims to provide academically strong and highly motivated undergraduates with a multi-year research experience that cultivates skills that will prepare them for a career in biological research. This could result in career goals that will take them to medical school, veterinary school or graduate program sin any biological sub-discipline, the administrators said. Because insects can be used as model systems to explore virtually any area of biology (population biology; behavior and ecology; biodiversity and evolutionary ecology; agroecology; genetics and molecular biology; biochemistry and physiology; cell biology), faculty in the program can provide research opportunities across the full sweep of biology. More information on the program is at http://ucanr.edu/sites/insectscholars/
- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
West, majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology, works in the Chiu lab on the Spotted Wing Drosophila (Drosophila suzukii or SWD), a serious pest of fruit crops. In collaboration with scientists in the U.S. and around the world, including Frank Zalom, UC Davis professor of entomology, West is surveying populations of SWD using next-generation sequencing to determine the extent of possible insecticide resistance.
“By correlating her results to insecticide bioassay data, she can start to understand the mechanisms of developing resistance and use this information to help the agricultural industries manage SWD in a more sustainable manner,” said Chiu, an assistant professor.
A multidisciplinary committee of faculty and staff from the UC Davis World Food Center and the Undergraduate Research Center selected the recipients. The award winners received a $2500 stipend to support their research related to food security, health and sustainability. The UC Global Food Initiative “is a commitment to apply a laser focus on what UC can do as a public research university, in one of the most robust agricultural regions in the world, to take on one of the world's most pressing issues," said UC President Janet Napolitano.
West began working as an undergraduate research assistant in the Chiu lab in August 2013.
She was one of eight students among a pool of 50 selected to be a member of the Class of 2013, Research Scholars in insect Biology Program (RSIBP). The program was organized by UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology faculty members Jay Rosenheim, Louie Yang and Chiu to provide undergraduates with a closely-mentored research experience in biology. The program's goal is to provide academically strong and highly motivated undergraduates with a multi-year research experience that cultivates skills that will prepare them for a career in biological research and useful for students whose career goals will take them to medical school, veterinary school, or graduate programs in any biological sub-discipline.
Undergraduates can easily feel like they are lost in the crowd, and rarely get close mentorship from faculty or other research staff. Chiu noted. The RSIBP program fills that bill. “It is highly competitive and being selected is not an easy feat in itself,” she said.
West is also a member of the Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program and received the outstanding BUSP Freshman Award in the spring of 2013.
West grew up in the city of Shasta Lake and graduated as valedictorian of the Class of 2012, Central Valley High School. A first-generation college student, West has received a number of scholarships at UC Davis, including the Susie Voorhies Memorial Scholarship (2012-13), Provost's Undergraduate Fellowship (May 2014) and the Regents Scholarship (May 2014). She expects to graduate from UC Davis in 2016 and pursue a career in research.
In addition to studying animal circadian rhythms, the Chiu lab collaborates with the Zalom lab and with research groups at Oregon State University, Washington State University, North Carolina State University, University of Georgia, and Cornell University to develop pest management strategies to combat SWD. Most drosophila flies feed on spoiled fruits, but SWD prefers fresh fruit (berries and soft-skinned fruits). The national crop loss has been estimated at more than $700 million annually.
“As a result, to control pest population and reduce crop loss, growers now rely on preventive applications of broad-spectrum neuroactive insecticides,” Chiu explained. “The selection pressure for insecticide resistance is therefore extremely high and will likely lead to resistance development in SWD, which threatens the sustainability of these high value crops.”
“Our laboratory has already set up a large network of collaborators all over the world to support this project,” Chiu said. “Jessica regards this project as an opportunity to explore new research areas, while contributing to an urgent food crisis as the crop industries and growers all over the world are becoming gravely concerned. “
Research Scholars Program in Insect Biology
President's Global Food Initiative
Recipients of UC Global Food Initiative Awards
Spotted Wing Drosophila Project, based at Oregon State University