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Research Scholars Postbaccalaureate Program commences its third year

17 August 2023

Valentina Peña (left) and Anne Goebel (right) are the new 2023 Research Scholars.

The Graduate School of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research welcomed two new Research Scholars on June 5, 2023, to embark on one-year postbaccalaureate research fellowships.

Designed for recent STEM undergraduates with exceptional academic acumen, the fellowships provide a mentored, immersive research environment for students from communities who were traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. Led by Graduate School Dean Matt Gibson, Ph.D., Vice Dean SaraH Zanders, Ph.D., and Assistant Dean Jinelle Wint, Ph.D., scholars gain hands-on laboratory experience and access to Technology Center capabilities and scientific experts.

“Our Research Scholars program was created for students to gain the valuable experience needed for entry into a Ph.D. program,” said Wint. “We aim to provide this opportunity for those students that were not able to obtain that experience in their undergraduate education.”

Valentina Peña has joined the lab of Associate Investigator Nicolas Rohner, Ph.D., under the mentorship of Postdoctoral Researcher Jasmin Camacho, Ph.D., where she is studying molecular bases behind the nectar bat’s surprising health despite diets consisting solely of sugar. Specifically, she is interested in uncovering antioxidant pathways these bats have adapted to protect themselves from the toxic effects of glucose. Moreover, she hopes to examine different species of bats to gain insight into how diet may influence how energy is stored in tissue.

Peña earned degrees in biological sciences and environmental studies from the State University of New York, Binghamton, prior to joining the Research Scholars program. During her undergraduate studies, she participated in two internships through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. Her first REU program at Florida International University focused on red mangrove forest productivity as a function of the effects of soil characteristics on water flow. Next, Peña investigated the influence of host-ecology and host-genetics on the taxonomic representation of intestinal microbes, specifically by sequencing gut microbiomes of several species of intertidal fish at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories.

The 2022 Research Scholars Taylor Shores and Andrea Frias Vellon with Assistant Dean Jinelle Wint.

“I’m excited to have access to the awesome Stowers Technology Centers,” said Peña. “I want to expand my knowledge in molecular methods and become better at designing experiments and thinking both critically and independently about scientific questions I am interested in testing.”

From the University of Kansas, Anne Goebel earned a degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology. As an undergraduate student, she studied how the Notch signaling pathway affects tentacle morphogenesis in the jellyfish, Podocoryna carnea. It was during this period when she realized she wanted to pursue a research career in developmental biology.

Goebel is currently investigating meiosis, the specialized cell division that gives rise to sperm and eggs, in the sea anemone, Nematostella vectensis. Her research, under the mentorship of Predoctoral Researcher Stefanie Williams in the Gibson Lab, aims to establish Nematostella as a new research organism for understanding meiosis. She will focus on the role of crucial proteins that form the synaptonemal complex, a large protein structure that facilitates chromosome pairing and recombination for proper segregation into reproductive cells. She will also work on a project observing whether temperature impacts sex ratios in sea anemones.

“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to gain more research experience as a Stowers Research Scholar,” said Goebel. “I want to strengthen my laboratory skills and knowledge in preparation for graduate school.”

As Peña and Goebel began their fellowships, the second class of Research Scholars, Taylor Shores and Andrea Frias Vellon, culminated their research with presentations during the Research Scholars Symposium on June 9, 2023. Shores spent her fellowship year in the Yu Lab investigating the mouse olfactory system and the role connective tissue growth factors play in olfactory map formation. Frias Vellon worked in the Gibson Lab studying venom production in Nematostella.

Following their time as Research Scholars, Frias Vellon plans to pursue a position in marine life animal husbandry, while Shores is currently working as a research assistant in the High Throughput Screening Laboratory at the University of Kansas. Shores is actively applying for graduate school programs and plans to earn her Ph.D. in biology. “My experience at the Stowers Institute was very good,” said Shores. “I feel like I have grown as a scientist and made some really great friendships.”

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