Harper Fauni (Lakewood, Calif.) will be working in bioinformatics under the Undiagnosed Diseases program at the National Human Genome Research Institute. Alexis Cruz (Baltimore) will be investigating the biological mechanisms of itch at the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research. Phuong Pham (Sioux Falls, S.D.) will be studying virion maturation at the National Cancer Institute’s HIV Dynamics and Replication Program.

All three women, members of the Class of 2016, were chosen for highly selective biomedical fellowships sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. The fellowships provide the opportunity to spend one or two years performing full-time research with some of the world’s leading scientists.

They want students to know that they didn’t arrive knowing it all. They studied hard, built each new experience on the last, and worked with faculty members and classmates to develop their expertise.

Fauni, who majored in neuroscience studies and biology, was quickly drawn in by her courses. “In neuroscience I was immersed in learning the underlying biological processes of the brain and how the activities of neural circuits translate into behaviors. The department also encouraged me to take diverse classes such as Introduction to Artificial Intelligence and Philosophy of Mind.”

She sought out a variety of research opportunities. Working with Macalester biology professor Marcos Ortega, she learned more about viral DNA packaging mechanisms. One summer as a Neuroscience Undergraduate Research Fellow at the University of Vermont, she developed her ability to produce clear, high resolution images of cells. As a Mayo Innovation Scholar on the Macalester team evaluating biomedical inventions, “I applied the lessons learned from lectures and my research skills onto real-world applications such as marketing and analyzing the viability of an invention.”

Fun fact: Harper is fluent in Tagalog, Cebuano, and Japanese; she also speaks some Korean.

A self-described “nerd for science,” Alexis Cruz, who majored in neuroscience studies with a chemistry emphasis, began her research career at Macalester with the Young Researchers* program. That summer she joined biology professor Lin Aanonsen in investigating persistent pain and worked with biology professor Sarah Boyer to understand the geographical distribution of mite harvestmen, a kind of daddy longlegs, in the Wet Tropics of Australia. The following summer she was selected for a research internship at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where she assisted a researcher investigating traumatic brain injury in rats.

Drawn to courses in physics and psychology, as well as neuroscience and chemistry, Cruz is grateful for the NIH opportunity. “The NIH program is a great way to figure out my next step. Not only will it expose me to cutting edge research, but this position will help me figure out what career direction I want to take. Graduate school is a huge commitment and I want to be sure I enroll in a graduate program in which I am deeply interested.”

Fun Fact: Cruz is a double gold medalist in U.S. Figure Skating.

Pham, who majored in biology, attributed her upward learning trajectory to her mentors.  “I am deeply grateful for the mentorship of Dr. Chandrasekar and professors Ortega and Aanonsen.  These mentors believed in me when I doubted myself, taught me the importance of humility and persistency, and provided me the essential knowledge and laboratory skills to push the boundaries of biomedical research.”

Like Cruz, her first college-level research experience was as part of the Young Researchers.  The following summer she interned at Sanford Research, studying the role of nonmuscle myosin II in clathrin-mediated endocytosis. She later presented her award-winning poster at the National Science Foundation (NSF) headquarters and coauthored a paper with Dr. Chandrasekar. During senior year, she conducted independent research on viral DNA packaging with Professor Ortega and received second place in the Mayo Clinic’s IMPACT program for her Macalester team’s hypothesis for the sporadic transformation of fallopian tube epithelium cells to ovarian cancer.

Over the summer, she interned at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studying the public health challenges of vision impairment. This fall she begins her work at the National Cancer Institute, where she will be testing the efficacy of potential antiretrovirals in a drug class known as maturation inhibitors.

Fun fact: Pham has lived in the U.S. for 16 years, but she maintains fluency in Vietnamese and an affinity for the spiky, strong smelling durian, “King of Fruits.

“My science education at Macalester was very collaborative,” says Fauni. “It was inspiring to see how my fellow peers were so driven. Macalester also provided me with the mentors who were very approachable, knowledgeable, and passionate about my interests. They never failed to remind me that ‘making mistakes is an important part of research’ because they knew that I would learn a lot from them. And they didn’t spoon feed me information—they challenged and encouraged me to find the answer myself.”

*Macalester’s Young Researchers program has been supported to date in part by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

August 8 2016

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