Summer Science: Pair get a jump on goals in UC Merced lab

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comAugust 5, 2013 

— Rahel Demissie and Amy Vang, one a recent high school grad and the other about to be a senior, are learning about science by doing research this summer at UC Merced chemistry labs. They are committed to pursuing a university education and embracing careers through which they can make a difference.

Demissie, 18, graduated from Golden Valley High School in June and will major in molecular cell biology in the fall at UC Berkeley. Vang, 17, will be a senior this fall at Golden Valley High and hopes to major in biological science at UC Merced.

Patti LiWang, a professor of molecular cell biology and a biochemistry researcher at UC Merced's Castle Commerce Center complex, has been mentoring Demissie, who is part of the American Chemical Society's summer SEED program. Students receive $2,500 to $3,000 stipends for nine-week lab stints.

LiWang said the summer program is important. One of the program's goals is to coax high school students to attend a UC campus such as the one in Merced.

Demissie was born in Ethiopia and came to United States when she was 6 months old. Her goal is to become a physician and work all over the world, including Ethiopia, which has a shortage of doctors. Illnesses related to the human immunodeficiency virus are the leading cause of death there. She is trying to mutate DNA cells in hopes of creating a protein that will prevent HIV.

As a young child, she became interested in science and going into medicine.

"Science is part of everyday life," Demissie said, "whether you realize it or not. Everything we use from turning lights on to what we eat has to do with science. Television, electronics, even makeup has to do with science. Farmers and doctors use science. It's a very big part of my life."

Eager to make difference

With a university degree, Demissie figures she can go to medical school, and ultimately change things and help people in the community. She just concluded two years of volunteer work helping discharge patients at Mercy Medical Center Merced.

Demissie said science isn't as intimidating as one might think. She has become familiar with scientific terms and processes used at the UC lab.

"Don't let the difficulty hold you back," Demissie said. "If you have an interest in it, go for it."

LiWang said Demissie is doing well in her second summer of lab work at UC Merced and recently put together a nice presentation. Participants are working on developing proteins that have anti-inflammatory properties, and research funded by the U.S. Army may have an impact in treating traumatic brain injuries.

Vang, a Merced native, hopes to attend UC Merced after high school. She became interested in science in her freshman year and said she finds the field interesting.

Vang's goal is to become a pharmacist. Over the years, she has wondered how human bodies work and wants to focus on the growing field of sports medicine.

"History is something in the past," Vang said. "With science, that is actually a study about future stuff and it will help us in the future."

Vang's advice to fellow students is to take the opportunity for lab study if it arises. She said this summer's time in the UC lab has been a good experience for her.

LiWang's husband, Andy, also is a UC Merced professor who teaches chemistry and chemical biology. He praises SEED, which stands for Summer Experiences for the Economically Disadvantaged.

Andy LiWang said the goal is to show people that science is fun, something that can be touched with the hands. In his upper division biochemistry classes, he asks students if they want to go into research, often finding that nobody raises their hands.

"Eighty to 90 percent want to become medical professionals," Andy LiWang said. "I am trying to broaden the view and excite people to be part of the next generation to become researchers. Everyone needs chemists."

Andy LiWang would like to see more efforts toward UC science outreach in elementary and middle schools. He thinks the SEED program is perfect for getting more students interested in science and a university education.

Fantastic opportunity

Stacey Cool, in her ninth year of teaching chemistry and advanced placement chemistry at Golden Valley High, said the SEED program is a fantastic opportunity for her students.

"It gives them a chance to work in a real research laboratory and understand what that entails," Cool said. "They learn lab techniques and learn how to keep a research notebook."

Cool said the summer program had two students a few years ago and now it has grown to five students. For the past two years, the program has had to turn qualified students away.

Golden Valley students Gabriel Bostic, Megan Kemphaus and Kristy Verma have been working in UC labs at the main campus. Cool said six more of her students previously have completed the program and that her students have earned scholarships through SEED to help with their university studies.

Elaine Yamaguchi, coordinator of the SEED program, said it was started 45 years ago. It's funded by members of the professional chemists society, companies, foundations and the national organization.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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