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Two VCU students awarded Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellowships

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Sarah Izabel, left, and Lizette Carrasco, right, pictured in their labs at Sanger Hall.

Two Virginia Commonwealth University students will spend the summer immersed in research after earning prestigious undergraduate research fellowships.

Lizette Carrasco, a junior biology major, and Sarah Izabel, a sophomore psychology major and Honors College student, have been accepted to the Exceptional Research Opportunities Program by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

VCU student researchers also earned EXROP fellowships in both 2014 and 2015.

This is the first time VCU students have received two slots in the program, which aims to support underrepresented groups in the next generation of scientists. The students will attend a conference with other researchers before spending 10 weeks this summer in a full-time, mentored research experience in the laboratory of a Howard Hughes investigator at research institutions.

“HHMI is synonymous with research excellence. To have VCU put besides those letters is a big deal,” said Sarah Golding, Ph.D., director of undergraduate research in the Department of Biology. “They get to see what that institution looks like, meet other students and work with first-class scientists.”

Sarah Izabel and her IMSD mentor, Jeffrey Dupree, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology in the School of Medicine.
Sarah Izabel and her IMSD mentor, Jeffrey Dupree, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology in the School of Medicine.

The students are no strangers to labs and research. At VCU, Carrasco and Izabel are taking part in the Initiative to Maximize Student Diversity, which matches underrepresented students with campus researchers.

Izabel studies how degeneration of neurons relates to diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, with Jeffrey Dupree, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology in the School of Medicine. During the summer, Izabel will work in a lab at the University of California, San Francisco, focused on another part of the neuron.

“I’ll still be studying the neuron, but instead of the axon I’m studying the dendrites,” Izabel said. “I’m excited to work with different systems, different approaches. As a nontraditional student it’s sometimes hard to fit in, but being able to spend time in the laboratory with not only like-minded people, but also older students, is a benefit of doing research.”

Lizette Carrasco in the lab of mentor Kimberly Jefferson, Ph.D.
Lizette Carrasco in the lab of mentor Kimberly Jefferson, Ph.D.

At VCU, Carrasco conducts research on a bacteria’s ties to vaginosis and preterm birth with Kimberly Jefferson, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology and immunology in the School of Medicine. This summer she will travel to conduct immunology research at Yale University.

Everybody thinks of an older person in a lab coat, pipetting away, but the faces of scientists are changing now.

“We share the similarity that we’re all underrepresented in the sciences, which is one of those things that brings us together. I find that very important to have that community of like-minded people,” Carrasco said of VCU’s IMSD program. “Everybody thinks of an older person in a lab coat, pipetting away, but the faces of scientists are changing now. Hopefully I can be reflective of the changing face of science, and scientists.”

The students were nominated by Allison A. Johnson, Ph.D., associate professor and assistant director of the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity. Johnson is able to nominate students for the EXROP competition as a member of HHMI’s Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science program.

About VCU and VCU Health

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 225 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Seventy-nine of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 13 schools and one college. The VCU Health brand represents the health sciences schools of VCU, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center and Level I trauma center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, MCV Physicians and Virginia Premier Health Plan. For more, please visit www.vcu.edu and vcuhealth.org.