A photo of Esmeralda Villavicencio.

Esmeralda Villavicencio Is Working to Make Disease and Infertility a Thing of the Past

UCLA College division of Life Sciences student Esmeralda Isabel Villavicencio wants to return some day to her home country of Ecuador as a genetics professor, leading pioneering research on complex diseases and neurological disorders. She already has a solid start at UCLA.

“My community has suffered from a tremendous lack of support for STEM research, and I want to contribute to change that,” says Villavicencio, a senior majoring in Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics with a Biomedical Research minor.

A photo of Esmeralda Villavicencio.

Esmeralda Villavicencio in the lab. Photo credit: UCLA College/Reed Hutchinson

Villavicencio is gaining valuable experience in Dr. Amander Clark’s lab as an undergraduate research assistant, where her project working with stem cells is a part of a research effort that could one day help develop novel treatments for infertility. The possibility that her work will have impact is what drives her.

“The work I’m doing now could eventually help people who suffer from infertility to conceive a child—people, for example, who become infertile after treatments for pediatric cancer, or due to developmental defects,” she says.

Villavicencio says the collaborative research environment at UCLA has prepared her for graduate school and a career as a scientist, from learning lab techniques to strengthening her critical thinking skills, discipline and resiliency.  This experience has helped her grow in her chosen career, and her hard work is also paying off in other ways.

Villavicencio’s drive and vision have been recognized by two UCLA Life Sciences scholarship awards that are helping her move closer to her goals. Last year, she was awarded the Kristen Hanson Memorial Scholarship, which honors a female undergraduate for academic accomplishment and a passion for science in addition to well-rounded interests, leadership, originality and commitment to engage with the world.  More recently, the COMPASS scholarship—from the Center for Opportunity to Maximize Participation, Access and Student Success—was presented to Villavicencio for her summer research.

“Knowing my hard work and enthusiasm stand out in such a top-tier school is encouraging, and receiving these honors also greatly alleviated my financial burden,” Villavicencio says. “I come from a low-income family and I’m able to attend UCLA in part thanks to a scholarship from my government. However, there are expenses it does not cover. The scholarships allow me to reduce my part-time job hours and focus more on my research and academic endeavors.”

Photos of UCLA College professors Jose Rodriguez and Erik Petigura.

Two UCLA College faculty members awarded 2020 Sloan Research Fellowships

Photos of UCLA College professors Jose Rodriguez and Erik Petigura.

UCLA College professors Jose Rodriguez (left) and Erik Petigura (right).

Two young UCLA College professors, and two others, are among 126 scientists and scholars from more than 60 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada selected today to receive 2020 Sloan Research Fellowships. UCLA is tied for fifth — behind only Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — in the number of faculty honored this year by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which selects early-career scientists and scholars who are rising stars of science.

“To receive a Sloan Research Fellowship is to be told by your fellow scientists that you stand out among your peers,” says Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “A Sloan Research Fellow is someone whose drive, creativity and insight make them a researcher to watch.”

Since the first Sloan Research Fellowships were awarded in 1955, 165 UCLA faculty members have received Sloan Research Fellowships. UCLA College’s 2020 recipients are:

Erik Petigura

Petigura, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy in the UCLA College, studies exoplanets — planets orbiting stars other than the sun — using ground-based and space-based telescopes. “My passion for exoplanets is motivated by a deceptively simple, yet fundamental question: Why are we here?” said Petigura. “Our species has wrestled with this question since antiquity, and it resonates strongly with me.” Exoplanets offer the key avenue toward answering this question, as they inform the otherwise elusive physical processes that led to the formation of the solar system, the formation of the Earth and the origin of life. His group has shown that nearly every sun-like star has a planet between the size of Earth and Neptune — sizes not present in the solar system. “In other words, our solar system is not a typical outcome of planet formation, at least in that one key respect,” he said. As a Sloan Fellow, Petigura plans to study the origin, evolution and fate of these ubiquitous planets.

Jose Rodriguez

Rodriguez, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the UCLA College, develops and applies new scientific methods in bio-imaging to determine, and provide a deep scientific understanding of, cellular and molecular structures and reveal undiscovered structures that influence chemistry, biology and medicine. His research combines computational, biochemical and biophysical experiments. His laboratory is working to explore the structures adopted by prions — a form of infectious protein that causes neurodegenerative disorders. Prion proteins, like the amyloid proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease, form large clumps that damage and ultimately kill neurons in the brain. Among his awards and honors, Rodriguez won a 2019 Packard fellowship for Science and Engineering by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; a 2018 Pew scholar in the biomedical sciences, a 2017 Searle Scholar and a 2017 Beckman Young Investigator by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.

Winners of Sloan Research Fellowships receive a two-year, $75,000 award to support their research. The fellowships are intended to enhance the careers of exceptional young scientists and scholars in chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences and physics. The Sloan Foundation, which is based in New York, was established in 1934.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Graphics of a check mark, Hammer Museum and Ackerman Student Union.

Changes make it easier than ever for Bruins to vote

Graphics of a check mark, Hammer Museum and Ackerman Student Union.

Students, faculty, staff and even members of the public will be able to vote at the Ackerman Union beginning Feb. 22, and at the Hammer Museum beginning Feb. 29.

When it comes to voting, there can be a litany of excuses as to why someone doesn’t make it to the polls on Election Day — you forgot, too busy to get there that day, working too far from your polling place, among others.

To erase as many barriers as possible to voting, Los Angeles County is implementing sweeping changes for voters leading up to the March 3 primary, and the UCLA campus community will be a major benefactor as the site of two vote centers — Ackerman Union and the Hammer Museum at UCLA.

The biggest change is that voters will have multiple days to cast their ballots. Voting begins Feb. 22 at Ackerman, and the Hammer Museum will be open for voting beginning Feb. 29.

For campus and county officials, bringing vote centers to UCLA was a no-brainer.

“We are really glad that California, specifically L.A. County, is pursuing a modernizing of the voting process,” said Karen Hedges, deputy director of campus life for UCLA Student Affairs. “There is often talk of students, faculty and staff trying to squeeze in their vote on Election Day. Having a vote center in the middle of campus at Ackerman Union, and having it open for 11 days, I think, will really encourage people to make voting less of a hassle and more of a prideful opportunity.”

The new L.A. County Vote Centers not only allow for up to 11 days of voting, but also commuters with limited time can rejoice. The new rules no longer force people to vote at the one place in their neighborhoods. Instead people now can cast their ballots at any voting center location in the county.

The new system also emphasizes accessibility. Voters can make the text larger on the screen, toggle between 13 languages, change the contrast of the screen and request an audio ballot. The system is also secure — it is not connected to the internet or any network and still produces a paper ballot.

“One of the goals to moving to the vote center model was to meet voters where they are, and UCLA is an amazing university centrally located to thousands of voters who live on campus or nearby,” said Mike Sanchez, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Registrar. “We’re thrilled to have UCLA and other universities, colleges and high schools act as vote centers for the upcoming March primary election.”

A major push from UCLA students, faculty and staff is underway ahead of the Feb. 18 voter registration deadline. The BruinsVOTE! organization will be hosting get-out-the-vote events and its website relaunched this week to include extensive information on voter registration, events, FAQs and more.

“Culturally, we’re trying to weave voting into the fabric of campus life — this is what Bruins do,” Hedges added. “Bruins are civically engaged and civically minded. Our volunteer work, our service work — it all falls into alignment with this. I think it is a True Bruin Value to vote.”

As UCLA celebrates its centennial, campus officials also point out two other important anniversaries: The 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women’s constitutional right to vote and the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing men the right to vote regardless of race.

“These milestones should be reminders to all of us not to take for granted the hard-won right, responsibility and privilege we have to participate in our nation’s democracy,” Chancellor Gene Block said in a message to the campus community. “I hope you will get civically engaged and show the world that #Bruinsvote.”

On March 3 at 5:30 p.m., the Hammer Museum will host Super Tuesday Bash 2020, during which people can watch election returns and pundits’ analyzing what unfolds on big screens in the courtyard.

In the meantime, BruinsVOTE! members will work to continue the gains made in student participation during the past several elections. Organizers will be canvassing Bruin Walk and promoting voting at UCLA athletics events, to name a few efforts.

“I think the biggest change is now you have 11 days to vote instead of one,” said Joshua Avila, third-year political science major and co-director of the BruinsVOTE! initiative. “This is definitely a big improvement, and we are excited to see more student turnout because of that. If it’s just one day, students might be busy that day or they just forget.”

Although there is an emphasis on registering to vote by Feb. 18, the vote center will allow for same-day conditional registration, which is a major plus, officials touted.

“If you think about it, registering to vote is the last of the antiquated processes that you can’t just do instantly,” Hedges said. “That does not resonate with our students, who are last minute and who are used to being able to do something right now. In our last few elections we’ve had long lines of provisional ballot people in hopes that their votes will still count.”

Having 11 days and same-day registration should lessen voter congestion, she said.

The UCLA campus voice can and will be a vital one, said Elisa Chang, graduate student studying education and BruinsVOTE! co-director.

“If we want to be able to shape the future that we’re going to literally be inheriting, then we all actually do need to vote and make ourselves heard,” Chang said.

VOTE CENTERS

Ackerman Union
308 Westwood Plaza
Bruin Reception Room, second floor
11-day Vote Center
Feb. 22–March 2, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
March 3 (Election Day), 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Hammer Museum at UCLA
10899 Wilshire Blvd.
Annenberg Terrace, third floor
Four-day Vote Center
Feb. 29–March 2, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
March 3 (Election Day), 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.