Past, present and potential future 'UBRPers' gather at the program's 30th annual conference

Past, present and potential future participants in the Undergraduate Biology Research Program united at the program’s 30th annual conference on Saturday, Jan. 26, in ENR2. Video by Vanessa Ontiveros, Alana Minkler, Marissa Heffernan, Nagisa Tsukada and Mekayla Phan Music Credit: Purple Planet - "Positive Motivation"

Past, present and potential future participants in the Undergraduate Biology Research Program united at the program’s 30th annual conference on Saturday, Jan. 26 in ENR2.

The conference served as a chance for nearly 100 students currently participating in UBRP or similar research programs to educate the public about their work.

The program, started in 1988, marked the 30th year of the conference. Jennifer Cubeta, UBRP director, said that an appreciation of the past three decades of work was central to this year’s conference.

“Our unofficial theme for the conference is gratitude because we’re really grateful for 30 years of amazing people,” Cubeta said.


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The "original UBRPer"

Like past years, a UBRP alum gave the keynote speech. However, Teri Suzuki, a senior discovery consultant for therapeutics for the cancer research company Reglagene, stuck out among the over 2,500 alumni to come out of the program. According to Cubeta, she was the “original UBRPer.”

When the program started in 1988, a then-undergraduate Suzuki inquired into whether undergrads could conduct research in a professional lab. 

“As an undergraduate I started working in the lab of Michael Wells to learn more about research,” Suzuki said in an email interview. “I think it helped demonstrate to him how much undergraduates could benefit from doing actual research in a real lab (as opposed to just lab classes)." 

Wells, Suzuki's mentor, teamed up with Carol Bender, who was the first director of UBRP, and began writing grants to fund research opportunities for undergraduate students.

"Dr. Wells and Carol Bender went on to found UBRP very shortly after. UBRP extends that same great experience to undergrads in many area of biology, but I was lucky enough to be the very first one,” Suzuki said.

Keeping with the theme of gratitude, Suzuki, who has mentored approximately a dozen UBRP students, thanked her colleagues and mentors during her speech.

Gratitude, revisited

A video booth was also available for attendees to use during the conference. Guests were asked to respond to one of five prompts addressing what aspect of the program or general science they were most grateful for.

UBRP alumni and current University of Arizona College of Medicine Tucson student Matthew Chaung came back to the conference to visit friends of his who were presenting and spoke on the theme of gratitude.

“I’m really grateful for the chance my [principle investigator] Dr. Daniela Zarnescu gave me as a freshman and her willingness to accept me into her lab is what has helped me get to where I am today,” Chaung said.

Sixty-nine current UBRPers, as well as additional students from other programs, presented their research in two shifts, speaking to an audience ranging from industry professionals to family members.

Research exposure

Among the attendees were students from Parker High School. The students were invited to check out the conference after one former Parker student, and current UBRPer, remarked that he came from a rural area and had no idea that research programs like UBRP existed, according to Cubeta.

Mariajose Franco, a molecular and cellular biology and physiology senior who worked with Maximizing Access to Research to research Careers rather than UBRP, said that she valued the communication skills she needed for the poster presentations.

“I am very interested in pediatric cancer research, so one of the things that I am very interested in is just trying to understand the formations of these cancers so that we can develop more effective therapeutics,” Franco said. “And so what I think that this opportunity gives me is just the chance to be able to explain what the purpose of all of the research that we do is about. A lot of the time, people forget that what you do in a lab is for the benefit of the population.”

Third year molecular and cellular biology student and current UBRPer Andrew Alamban also expressed an appreciation for the opportunity to present his work to the public.

“I think that not only is the quality and type of science we do important, but so is the communication,” Alamban said. “And that, I strongly believe, is something that I’ve taken advantage of through UBRP.”

Alamban initially became involved with UBRP when he submitted an application that included a writing segment focused on Jurassic Park and the science they use in the movies. Now he works with DNA in his research, which he considered “tangentially” related.

Alamban also expressed an appreciation for the financial benefits of being in UBRP. Participating students have half their wages paid by their mentors and the other half funded by a variety of sources, including grants and institutional funding, according to Cubeta.

By working with UBRP, Alamban said that he did no have to get a second job, which gave him more time to focus on his career interests. He said one day he might give back to the program.

“I do understand what it's like to need that funding,” Alamban said. “I also would like to be a resource for students here to be able to connect them when they graduate.” 

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Future financials

This year, a serious step to ensure the financial sustainability of the program for future students was taken with the establishment of a UBRP endowment by UBRP alumna Carol Arakaki.

According to an announcement in the conference program booklet, given out to attendees, the $25,000 endowment will reach full establishment by 2021. With the establishment of the endowment, UBRP will be less financially vulnerable to changes in the availability of other funding sources.

“I think it’s cool that the program has impacted [alumni] to the level that they keep it in mind, even this far out,” Cubeta said. “Where it’s like ‘you know I really want to give back,’ and it’s great to see alumni doing that and giving back into the program.”

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