Undergraduate Research Student Profiles

UCLA undergraduates have the opportunity to participate in groundbreaking research under the mentorship of our world-class physical sciences faculty. This includes investigations into the origin of the universe, galaxies and stars, climate change, and the molecular basis of life. It also includes efforts to develop new nanomaterials required to solve the many health and environmental crises that we all face. Undergraduate research often leads to such tangible outcomes as coauthorship with our faculty on papers published in the leading scientific journals as well as the opportunity to present research results at local and national scientific conferences. Many of our students receive fellowship support from UCLA as well as federal and philanthropic organizations to carry out this research.

Below we present profiles of a small sampling of our undergraduate researchers.


Lindsay Elise Chaney

Name: Lindsay Elise Chaney
Major: Chemistry-Material Science
Faculty Mentor: Richard B Kaner
Abstract Title: Graphene Hybrid Supercapacitors: The Better Battery
Authors: LINDSAY CHANEY, Maher F. El-Kady, Melanie Ihns, Mengping Li, Jee Youn Hwang, Mir F. Mousavi, Andrew T. Lech, and Richard B. Kaner

Portable electronics like cell phones and laptops require energy storage technology to run. Batteries currently dominate the industry for energy storage, but they are restricted by low power capabilities and degradation. Supercapacitors can improve these limitations because they can charge and discharge much faster and have longer ultimate lifetimes than batteries. However, what currently limits supercapacitor technology is low energy density. We developed hybrid supercapacitors using electrodes made of graphene doped with manganese dioxide. By utilizing both these nanomaterials in a hybrid design, we take advantage of their combined benefits""high surface area, high conductivity, and high capacitance. The technique used to fabricate the electrodes uses a commercially available LightScribe DVD drive to produce the graphene and then electrodeposition to incorporate the manganese dioxide. Using these electrodes, we have achieved energy densities of 42Wh/l, which is six times greater than current state-of-the-art supercapacitors. Finally, we demonstrate the use of this technology to create ultra-small devices and to store the energy harvested by solar panels.


Ely Contreras

Name: Ely Contreras
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Jorge Z. Torres
Research Title: Identification of Morgana Protein Interactors Important in Cell Division
Post Graduate Plans: Attend graduate school

Ely Contreras is a fourth year majoring in Biochemistry and working under the mentorship of Dr. Torres in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. The Torres lab focuses on cell division specifically how various protein components coordinate the formation of the mitotic spindle necessary for proper chromosome segregation. The lab also investigates how a misregulation in these components can potentially lead to the development of cancer cells.

Her current project deals with the characterization of Morgana, a protein involved in the assembly of the mitotic spindle. Morgana has been linked to centrosome amplification, a cell division defect that leads to genomic instability and tumorigenesis. Morgana has been shown to interact with other proteins such as HSP90, ROCKI, and ROCKII. The specific molecular details regarding Morgana's role during cell division remains unclear. To further characterized Morgana it is necessary to identify other interaction partners during mitosis. In order, to identify Morgana interactors, a stable cell line expressing tagged Morgana was generated and Morgana interactors were identified by mass spectroscopy. Two novel protein interactors involved in mitotic spindle assembly, BUB3 and MAP1B, were identified and lend support to Morgana's central role in cell division. Further characterization of these previously undescribed interaction partners will pave the way for elucidating mechanistic details about cell division and its role in cancer, as well as provide new therapeutic targets for inhibiting the proliferation of cancerous cells.


Megan Mae Cory

Name: Megan Mae Cory
Major: Biochemistry
Faculty Mentor: Alexandra Butler
Abstract Title: Alpha-Cell Mass in Lean Non-Diabetic Humans over the Adult Life Span
Authors: MEGAN M. CORY and Alexandra Butler

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are characterized by loss of beta cells and beta cell function in the pancreas. Studies have established different effects, including advanced age and obesity, on beta cell mass, number and size. Researchers have found that in mice it is possible to regenerate a large fraction of beta cells from preexisting alpha cells through reprogramming the cells. Since there is evidence that alpha cells could possibly be used to generate insulin-producing beta cells, which could lead to a possible treatment for diabetes, I sought to establish the effect of advanced age on alpha cell mass in lean non-diabetic humans. I examined autopsy tissue from human autopsy pancreas from 66 non-diabetic individuals 30—102 years of age. After staining the alpha cells, I imaged and analyzed the slides to determine alpha cell mass. To calculate alpha cell mass, I used the same method previously used at the Larry Hillblom Islet Research Center to determine beta cell mass. I found that with advanced age the exocrine pancreas atrophies, leaving fibrosis and fatty tissue. Despite this loss of exocrine pancreatic tissue, the alpha cell mass remains constant with advanced age in lean non-diabetic humans. As expected due to the atrophy of exocrine tissue, the pancreatic alpha cell fractional area does increase with advanced age. On par with the previous findings on beta cell mass with advanced age, this study found that advanced age has no significant effect on alpha cell mass. The implication of this finding is that alpha cells could be a potential source of new beta cells in individuals with type-1 diabetes throughout the normal lifespan.


Avalon H. Dismukes

Name: Avalon H. Dismukes
Faculty Mentor: Richard B. Kaner
Research Title: Molybdenum Borides: Phase Pure Synthesis and Analysis
Career Goal or Post-graduation Plans: PhD in Inorganic Chemistry

Avalon Dismukes is a senior in the Departmental Honors Program with a joint BS/MS degree expected in June 2015. She has been working in the department of inorganic chemistry and materials science under the mentorship of Dr. Richard Kaner since Winter 2012.

Refractory metal borides have recently generated intense interest in materials chemistry. These compounds have been shown to possess many advantageous properties, such as exceptionally high hardness, electrical conductivity, and even superconductivity. Previous research was directed at the tungsten tetraborides in conjunction with a current graduate student, but new research has been re-directed at molybdenum-borides due to the iso-electronic relationship between molybdenum and tungsten. Avalon is currently researching the synthesis of higher molybdenum borides (i.e. MoB2, Mo0.91B3, and MoB3) currently under exploration as compounds of interest in this category of materials. However, the complex phase relationships in the molybdenum-boron system complicate the preparation of phase-pure samples. Here we expand upon the phase relationships in arc melted MoB2, Mo0.91B3 and MoB­3. Systematically varying the ratio of boron to molybdenum in sub- to super-stoichiometric amounts has yielded samples approaching phase purity. System compositions are examined by X-ray diffraction (XRD) and their grain structure analyzed by scanning electron microscopy (SEM). We also demonstrate preferential phase formation of the MoB2 structure in both binary and ternary solid solutions despite wide stoichiometric variation, as suspected from previous reports. This work enables further exploration of the properties of molybdenum borides such as through hardness measurements, thermogravimetric stability testing, and crystallographic phase design.

Avalon would like to thank Dr. Kaner, Chris Turner, and Dr. Hasson for their mentorship and support. She would also like to thank the Beckman Foundation Scholarship and IMSD Scholars program that have provided these research opportunities. She is looking forward to attending graduate school next fall.


Abdiasis Hussein

Name: Abdiasis Hussein
Faculty Mentor: Professor Catherine F. Clarke
Graduate Mentor: Cuiwen H. He
Research Title: Genetic Screen for Suppressors of yeast coq8 Mutants
Career Goal or Post-graduation Plans: Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Abdiasis Hussein is a fifth year student who studying biochemistry. He is currently doing research in Professor Clarke's lab in the department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCLA.

Coenzyme Q (Q) is a lipid electron and proton carrier in the electron transport chain. Q functions in mitochondrial respiratory chain and serves as a lipophilic antioxidant. In yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, eleven genes have been identified as being required for coenzyme Q biosynthesis. One of these genes, COQ8, encodes for Coq8 and previous studies suggest that Coq8 may function as a kinase required for Q biosynthesis. However, no experiments have yet shown any explicit kinase activity of Coq8 nor have phosphorylated forms of the Coq8 polypeptide been detected. The goal of his project was to isolate revertants that can correct the Q biosynthetic defect and to perform genetic screens to identify novel protein suppressors present in the coq8-3 mutant. Both coq8-3 and coq8 null mutant lack Q6 and neither can grow on rich medium containing glycerol (YPG), a nonfermentable carbon source. Abdiasis has observed that after about 2 weeks of incubation, small yeast revertants among the coq8-3 mutants plated on YPG plates. These revertants retain the original mutation present in the coq8-3 parent strain, but can grow in medium containing nonfermentable carbon sources. After further analyses, he is hoping to determine whether these revertants contain potential suppressor genes and his goal is to identify any compensatory mutations that might help characterize Coq8 function.

Abdiasis would like to thank Dr. C.F. Clarke and members of Clarke lab; Dr. Tama Hasson and Dr. Diana Azurdia for their mentorship and support.


Roberto Naranjo

Student: Roberto Naranjo
Mentor: Professor Louis Bouchard
Funding: UCLA Bridges Summer Undergraduate Research Program (BriSURP) NIH Grant R25 GM050067, Maximizing Access to Research Centers (MARC), the NIH/National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIH MARC T34 GM008563) to D. D. Simmons.
Project Title: Studying Olefin Metathesis Reaction using Para-hydrogen Induced Hyperpolarization (PHIP)- Pt Nanoparticles as MRI Contrast Agents using Para-hydrogen Induced Hyperpolarization (PHIP)

Roberto Naranjo is a 3rd year Chemical Engineering major at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. He joined Professor Louis Bouchard's laboratory in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in June 2014 during his participation in Bridges to the Baccalaureate Summer Research Program. He was under the direct mentorship of Dr. Stefan Gloeggler working on determining reaction mechanisms for metathesis reactions.
Since the beginning of summer, he was been working on studying metathesis reactions using para-hydrogen. Para-hydrogen is used to enhance NMR signals and provides unique quantum spin signatures that can help elucidate reaction mechanisms. His work leads to an entirely novel methodology that can be used to study most metathesis reactions in operating catalytic reactors. These metathesis reactions can be used as potential methods in producing longer hydrocarbon chains from smaller hydrocarbon chains. He is switching over to a new project; synthesizing platinum nanoparticles that will serve as MRI contrast agents. They will also use para-hydrogen that will enhance and heighten the MRI signal, thus obtaining a higher resolution.
Roberto plans to graduate with his B.S in Chemical Engineering and join a Ph.D program in Chemical Engineering. His research interests range from nanoscience, specific drug delivery systems, heterogeneous catalysis, and biotechnology. He would like to thank Dr. Dwayne Simmons, Dr. Diana Azurdia, Alfred Morales, and the MARC U*STAR program for all their support and guidance. He would also like to thank Professor Bouchard, Dr. Stefan Gloeggler, and every member of the Bouchard lab for their continuous assistance and guidance.


Guochao Sun

Name: Guochao Sun
Major: Astrophysics
Faculty Mentor: Steven Furlanetto
Abstract Title: Models of Cosmic Reionization Based on Halo Abundance Matching and Their Implications for the Properties of High-redshift, Star-forming Galaxies
Authors: GUOCHAO SUN and Steven R. Furlanetto

Reionization is the last major phase transition of the intergalactic medium (IGM), occurring between roughly 500 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang. It is closely related to the formation of the first stars and galaxies, which are considered to be the primary sources of Lyman-continuum photons (E>13.6 eV) that reionized the intergalactic hydrogen. Deep sky surveys have measured star-forming galaxies out to redshift z=8, but understanding the reionization process requires knowledge of both the properties of detected galaxies and how those properties evolve. We present models that use the abundance matching technique to relate the luminosity distribution of galaxies at redshifts z=6-8 to the mass distribution of dark matter halos that host galaxies. We compare our model reionization histories to the latest observational constraints, including the Thomson scattering optical depth against the cosmic microwave background (CMB) reported by the Planck consortium. Our models have important implications for the hard-to-measure escape fraction of ionizing photons and the minimum halo mass of galaxies, especially of those beyond current detection limit. Other factors like the contribution from Population III stars are also discussed. Under physically-motivated assumptions of the evolution patterns of our key parameters, we investigate how future observations by the JWST and mapping experiments of the HI 21cm emission can further improve our understanding of the epoch of reionization and galaxies in the early universe.


Kyle Joseph Travaglini

Name: Kyle Joseph Travaglini
Major: Biochemistry
Faculty Mentor: Steven G Clarke
Abstract Title: Lost In Translation: Elongation Factor Methylation May Be Essential For Proper Communication With the Ribosome
Authors: KYLE J. TRAVAGLINI, Maria C. Dzialo and Steven G. Clarke

Methylation of the translational apparatus fine-tunes several of the protein-protein and protein-RNA interactions that ensure accurate protein synthesis. The elongation factors of Saccharomyces cerevisiae are heavily methylated, yet the roles of these modifications are not well understood. Many of the methylation sites are found on ribosomal interacting regions of the proteins, indicating that these modifications may have functional relevance. Here we show loss of EF2 methyltransferases results in yeast cells with increased sensitivity to various translational inhibitors and increased stop codon readthrough. Loss of EF1A methyltransferases did not result in a similar set of phenotypes. However, loss of different combinations of EF1A methyltransferases causes a severe growth phenotype. These mutants grow slowly in rich media and have increased resistance to translational inhibitors. These results indicate methylation of EF1A and EF2 mediate sensitive interactions that are essential for mRNA decoding by fine-tuning its communication with the translational apparatus.


Jacquelynne Vaughan

Name: Jacquelynne Vaughan
Major: Physics
Faculty Mentor: Troy A Carter
Abstract Title: Using Ratios of Spectral Transition Lines to Determine Electron Temperature in the Large Plasma Device (LAPD)
Authors: JACQUELYNNE D. VAUGHAN and Troy A. Carter

Spectral transition lines are identified with a USB spectrometer for magnetized helium and argon plasmas generated in the cylindrical Large Plasma Device (LAPD). Ratios between these transition lines can potentially be used to determine the electron temperature of the plasma. For the diagnostic set-up, a lens (of approximately 2 mm in radius) was mounted onto the LAPD and linked to the spectrometer through an optical fiber. The spectrometer was a 16-bit A/D CCD using a 600 lines/mm grating (200 - 850 nm in the electromagnetic spectrum), with an optical resolution of 1.9 nm. The spectrum as a function of wavelength was read from the CCD into a LabView interface. Ratios between relative spectral lines were compared against measurements taken from Langmuir probes at corresponding locations in space given an integrated line particle density of about 10,000 particles for an approximately square plasma column 20 cm in width.


Karen Wong

Name: Karen Wong
Home University: UCLA
Class: Senior
Major: Biochemistry
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Jorge Torres

I am a senior majoring in Biochemistry with a minor in Biomedical Research at UCLA, where I am conducting research under the mentorship of Dr. Jorge Torres. My research focuses on characterizing two novel spindle assembly checkpoint components GGCX and CKMT1A, and identifying their roles in the context of the cell cycle.

A key objective for cell division is the equal transmission of genetic material into the two nascent cells. During mitosis, this process is highly orchestrated and it requires a complex network of signal transductions to ensure faithful chromosomal segregation. An integral member of this process is the spindle assembly checkpoint that delays the anaphase onset in the presence of DNA damage or kinetochore-microtubule attachment errors. The deregulation of SAC has been implicated in aneuploidy and tumor progression. To elucidate the precise SAC function and ultimately uncover novel chemotherapeutic drugs, we previously performed a high-throughput small interfering RNA human genome screen and identified a set of novel genes that bypassed the SAC checkpoint in the presence of Taxol, a spindle poison. CKMT1A and GGCX were among the ones we discovered. To further verify their roles in the SAC, we will knockdown these two enzymes using short hairpin RNA and observe cellular defects in fixed cells using immunofluorescence microscopy. We will also couple the knockdown to time-lapse microscopy to establish a correlation between the timing of mitotic events and the cellular phenotypes. These studies will help characterize novel proteins that regulate the cell cycle in hopes of developing targets for new cancer therapeutics.