Berkeley researchers help grow future scientists in the lab

Some of the most promising science undergraduates in the country will return to their home schools this week, after a summer-long exploration of frontline research and big science at UC Berkeley.

Amgen scholar Aline Yonezawa

Aline Yonezawa was one of 23 aspiring scientists exploring the nuts and bolts of frontline research at UC Berkeley this summer. (Roibín Ó hÉochaidh photos)

The 23 students from 19 universities — here as part of the Amgen Scholars Program — have spent the last 10 weeks working alongside graduate students on faculty research projects across a spectrum of scientific fields, from biomolecular engineering to chemistry and neuroscience.

The program — launched in 2006 by the philanthropic arm of California-based biopharmaceutical company Amgen Corporation — aims to inspire a new generation of scientists by encouraging outstanding science undergraduates to pursue advanced degrees and academic or professional careers in science, research and biotech.

Under the mentorship of respected faculty researchers at 13 elite universities, including UC Berkeley, UCSF, MIT, Columbia and the United Kingdom’s Cambridge University, scholars learn about the nuts and bolts of basic research as they experience what life is like as a first-year graduate student.

“Amgen scholars are among the best and the brightest students in the nation and have huge potential to go on to achieve great things in science,” says Sanjay Kumar, a program mentor and associate professor of bioengineering at Berkeley.

“It’s important for the students to get a good sense of whether a career in research is the best fit for them, and it’s a great opportunity for us to introduce them to the kind of work we do at Berkeley.”

Of the nearly 1,100 Amgen scholars who have completed their undergraduate studies, more than 85 percent are pursuing an advanced degree or career in a scientific field. Some 50 former scholars are currently enrolled in graduate programs at Berkeley, with another 14 set to begin in the fall.

Admission to the program is highly competitive. This year Berkeley received more than 830 completed applications for the 23 available spots.

One of the successful applicants was Justine deGruyter, who is on track to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in physics at New Mexico State University

Amgen scholar Justine deGruyter

Amgen scholar Justine deGruyter worked on building synthetic compounds for anti-cancer drugs in the chemistry lab of Richmond Sarpong.

“Working side-by-side with all these brilliant people has definitely helped me grow as a scientist, changing how I approach research and expanding my thinking about the field of chemistry,” says deGruyter.

“I’ve learned so much in just 10 weeks at Berkeley. I can’t begin to imagine what spending five years would mean for me,” she adds.

At Berkeley, deGruyter joined the research group headed by Richmond Sarpong, an associate professor of chemistry, helping the team in its efforts to develop synthetic compounds that could one day form the basis for anti-cancer or anti-inflammatory medications.

“The students that come through Berkeley as Amgen scholars are able to hit the ground running and make real contributions to our work,” says Sarpong. “They’re surrounded by people doing interesting work and important frontline research, which helps give them a sense of the potential of science in tackling different problems.”

In addition to research and lab work, scholars participate in a series of workshops and tutorials designed to help students develop their skills in such areas as writing and publishing scientific reports and papers, giving oral presentations and completing graduate-school applications.

Graduate-student mentors and guest speakers also help scholars explore such issues as what faculty look for in their graduate students and practical ways students can use their degrees.

Aline Yonezawa, who is looking forward to her senior year at the University of Florida, spent her summer working on multi-drug resistance in cancer cells of the brain as a member of the bioengineering research group headed by Kumar.

“Basic research is all about developing therapeutics that will benefit patients in the future and the idea of seeing real, positive impact of your work in your lifetime really appeals to me,” says Yonezawa.

UC Berkeley graduate student Seychelle Vos

Berkeley’s Seychelle Vos, one of the first Amgen scholars, is on track to earn her Ph.D. in November.

Seychelle Vos was a 20-year-old undergraduate studying genetics at the University of Georgia when she came to Berkeley as a member of the first cohort of Amgen scholars in 2007.

Influenced by her experience working with Rachel Brem, associate professor of molecular and cell biology, Vos switched from an M.D.-Ph.D. track and returned to Berkeley as a graduate student focusing on biochemistry and structural biology.

“Coming to Berkeley for those few weeks opened my eyes to how much was out there and helped me work out what I really wanted to do with my life,” says Vos. “I realized that it was questions of pure research that excited me most and that basic research was where I truly wanted to be.”

Today Vos is putting the finishing touches on her doctoral dissertation. If she files as planned in November, the 26-year-old will become the first Amgen scholar to complete graduate school.

In 2010, the foundation renewed a four-year, $1 million grant to Berkeley and the other partner institutions, bringing total program funding over the eight years through 2014 to $34 million.