Two first-generation CLAS students chosen as summer research scholars at Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Author: Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Posted: January 30, 2018

Two students from Portland State University's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences will get hands-on experience in the field of biomedicine as part of a summer research program with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Alexandra Gallegos and Elizabeth Perez, both juniors, are among the 60 students selected nationwide to participate in the 10-week Exceptional Research Opportunities Program. In total, 122 applied. Gallegos is a biology major and Perez is studying biochemistry.

The two were eligible because PSU was the recipient of a 5-year, $2 million grant in 2014 from HHMI, one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the U.S. that supports the advancement of biomedical research and science education.

The summer Exceptional Research Opportunities Program is part of the institute's efforts to increase diversity and inclusion in the science, technology, engineering and math fields and help nurture students who come from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds.

Gallegos and Perez, both first-generation college students, will each be matched with a Howard Hughes scientist and work in their laboratory for the summer.

Both said they were honored to be selected.

"I can't wait to learn about the lab that I will be placed in and what it is like to be deeply involved in full-time research in a new city," Perez said. "I am excited to build upon things that I have learned in the classroom and apply them."

Gallegos said she hopes the experience will help her to hone her skills as a researcher.

"I want to learn how to develop good research questions, design experiments and analyze data," she said. "I also hope to get the chance to network with other scientists in my field."

CLAS biology professor Suzanne Estes, who nominated them, said opportunities like this are important in helping students persist in challenging STEM degree programs and succeed after graduation.

Gallegos and Perez are members of the university's Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, a National Science Foundation-funded program run by Estes that works to increase retention, graduation and post-graduation success for minority students majoring in STEM by providing them with academic, social and professional development support.

"Recruitment is a problem, but retention in those programs is a bigger problem," Estes said. "Many who enter one of those tracks drop out if they don't have extra support in building their science identity. Engaging in undergraduate research is an important means of developing that identity."

Two other Louis Stokes Alliance students from CLAS have been selected as Exceptional Research Opportunities Program scholars in recent years: Florisela Herrejon Chavez, a 2017 graduate now in her first year of a Ph.D. program in cancer biology at Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in New York, and Adalid Pelayo, a junior majoring in biology.

CLAS chemistry professor Gwen Shusterman is the HHMI grant's principal investigator and, as director of PSU's STEM Education and Equity Institute, develops programs and initiatives that help more students from diverse backgrounds succeed in STEM courses and careers.

Photo Caption: From left are Gwen Shusterman, director of PSU's STEM Education and Equity Institute, Alexandra Gallegos and Elizabeth Perez.