Summer of Science: RNA Institute Hosts First Cohort of ‘Research Experiences for Undergraduates’ Students

Twelve undergraduate students stand in a row in front of the Life Science building entranceway. RNA Institute director Andy Berglund is standing on the far left. Shanise Kent, assistant dean of Graduate Education, is standing on the far right. It is a sunny day, but the group is standing in the shade of an awning attached to the building entrance. Most of the building behind them is glass, with silver colored columns and trim.
The REU students gathered for a group picture with program PIs Andy Berglund (far left) and Shanise Kent (far right) amid the RNA Day festivities. Photo by Patrick Dodson

By Erin Frick 

ALBANY, N.Y. (Aug. 15, 2023) — This summer, 12 undergraduate students from colleges and universities across the U.S. partnered with scientists at the University at Albany’s RNA Institute to undertake hands-on research projects as part of the RNA Institute’s inaugural Research Experiences for Undergraduates in RNA (REU in RNA) program.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, UAlbany’s REU program is focused on scientific discovery in and around ribonucleic acid (RNA) science and RNA-based technologies. The program aims to engage student researchers from backgrounds that have historically been underrepresented in STEM fields. Of the dozen participating students, 10 were funded by the NSF grant; two were supported by existing grants held by their host labs. 

Over the course of the 10-week residential program, students hailing from New York, Texas, Arizona, California and Puerto Rico worked alongside UAlbany faculty mentors to undertake original research projects exploring a wide range of topics such as myotonic dystrophy, salivary gland fibrosis, Zika virus and the chemical profile of earwax. The students presented their project findings to members of the UAlbany community during the Institute’s “RNA Day” celebration and poster session on Aug. 1.

“Being able to have the opportunity to participate in a research program that highlights diversity and inclusion is so important to me and I’m grateful to have been selected to be a part of it,” said Camryn Beckles, a rising senior and chemistry major at UAlbany who works with Senior Research Scientist Ken Halvorsen. “I learned that research takes time and to be patient with the results I get because it won't always be perfect and not to let it get to me. For the future, I plan to look at research in a different way and I now have an open mind to look more into different topics and areas of research since it's so important to be open-minded in this field.”

Beckles started working on the project that she advanced this summer during the spring 2023 semester and plans to continue the work this fall.

“I'm thankful that all the techniques I've been learning will help with the classes I'm going to take next semester: cellular biology and virology,” Beckles said. “The lab work in this project really made me learn all the terms and the processes, so when I go to the class, I'm going to ace it.”

Beyond the Lab

In addition to their projects, the students participated in a series of seminars focused on research skills and career development, as well as social programming. Activities included mentoring lunches with UAlbany faculty, a panel discussion around STEM careers and guidance on preparing for interviews and crafting a professional CV — both for grad school applications as well as jobs in academia or industry. The students also took in a presentation about the importance of science communication and best practices for sharing their science and a discussion on cultural responsiveness in research relationships.

During a field trip to Six Flags Great Adventure for “STEM in the Park,” the REUs explored applications of STEM in an amusement park setting.

Reflecting on Research

“The REU program at UAlbany was an amazing experience,” said Duong (David) Phuc, who is majoring in biology at Jamestown Community College and worked with Professor of Biological Sciences Melinda Larsen to explore salivary gland fibrosis. “I got to learn many lab skills, of which my favorite are immunohistochemistry staining and cell cultures. I have no doubt that this experience will have profound effects on my research interests in the future.”

Mireylin Cordones, a biology major at The College of Saint Rose, worked with Senior Research Scientist Arun Chandrasekaran to study DNA nanostructures built using barium. “The most valuable lesson I learned is that science isn't perfect; it is full of mistakes and struggles,” Cordones said. “But at the end, it is all worth it to find answers to our questions.”

“During this summer, I learned that you don’t need to follow a direct path in life,” said Carolina Saldivar, a forensic science major at St. Mary’s University, who worked with Professor Rabi Musah in the Department of Chemistry to study differences in the chemical composition of earwax among genders and races. “The RNA research taught me that we can do anything we put our minds to. I got amazing friends and mentor from this opportunity.”

Looking Ahead

Co-principal investigators on the grant — Andy Berglund, professor of biological sciences and director of the RNA Institute UAlbany and Shanise Kent, assistant dean of Graduate Education— secured over $360,000 to support three cohorts of student researchers from 2023 to 2025 as part of the REU in RNA program.

“Giving undergraduate students the opportunity to join research teams, made up of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and staff scientists, working on current scientific problems allows them to explore the possibilities of pursuing advanced degrees, careers in academic, government and industry labs and many other careers,” Berglund said. “It was great to hear at the end of the program the excitement from the students when discussing their plans and potential careers.”  

“In this inaugural year, we received 120 applications from students in 14 different majors, representing 27 states and Puerto Rico, and 95 colleges and universities,” said Kent. “Many of the applicants had not heard of UAlbany before applying to the REU program, with 80% indicating they learned about the program from faculty at their home institution, the NSF website, or a Google search. Having a nationally competitive interdisciplinary REU program is not just beneficial to the students selected to participate. It also helps us recruit the best and brightest graduate students. Our hope is that many REU participants will choose UAlbany for their graduate education.”

Meet the 2023 'REU in RNA' Student Researchers

Camryn Beckles         

University at Albany

Major: Chemistry      

Mentor: Ken Halvorsen

Project title: Probing Thermodynamics & Stoichiometry of DNA Intercalators


Meghna Chandrasekar

University of California, Santa Barbara

Major: Biochemistry-Molecular Biology

Mentor: Alan Chen

Project title: RNA’s Mechanism of Gene Regulation: Molecular Dynamics of the Fluoride Riboswitch


Mireylin Cordones   

The College of Saint Rose   

Major: Biology           

Mentor: Arun Chandrasekaran

Project title: Barium-induced Aggregation of a Multi-crossover DNA Motif


Phuc (David) Duong 

Jamestown Community College

Major: Biology

Mentor: Melinda Larsen

Project title: Determining the Role of miRNAs in Salivary Gland Fibrosis


Sarah Perez   

University of Puerto Rico Aguadilla

Major: Biomedical Biology

Mentor: Cara Pager

Project title: Modulation of Pseudouridylation RNA Marks and Zika Virus Infection


Ashley Ramirez           

St. Mary's University

Major: Forensic Science - Criminology        

Mentor: Gabriele Fuchs

Project title: Influence of Untranslated Regions on RACK1 Translation Efficiency


Carolina Saldivar       

St. Mary's University

Major: Forensic Science - Chemistry

Mentor: Rabi Musah

Project title: I Found Myself in a Sticky Situation: Mass Spectral Analysis of Earwax


Luke Simpson              

Hendrix College

Major: Biology           

Mentor: Paolo Forni

Project title: The Expansion of Vomeronasal Horizontal Basal Stem Cells in Developing Rodents.


Darelys Soto 

Interamerican University of Puerto Rico

Major: Industrial Chemistry

Mentor: Jia Sheng

Project title: Cellular Characterization of Natural Products in Model Myotic Dystrophy Type 1 Cell Line


Barbara Zazueta         

Southwestern Community College 

Major: Biochemistry 

Mentor: Andy Berglund

Project title: Testing New Dm1 Small Molecule Therapeutics Effects on Alternative Splicing; Are They Specific to the Disease-causing CTG Repeat Expansion or Not?


Anne Roy         

Pace University        

Major: Biochemistry and Computer Science         

Mentors: Sweta Vangaveti / Andy Berglund

Project title: Exploring Quercetin for Treating Type 2 Myotonic Dystrophy: Combined in Vitro and in Silico Study


Max Kugler    

Rosemont College

Major: Biology

Mentor: Andy Berglund

Project title: Probing Transcript Levels of Genes of Interest in Myotonic Dystrophy Type 1 to Assess Possible Mechanism of Action of Small Molecule Therapeutics