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Visiting students from the University of Puerto Rico - who worked in laboratories this past semester - and representatives from the Cornell Undergraduate Research Board enjoy a quick break from final exams at the Ezra Cornell statue. Pictured, from left, are Mariela Bayrón, Ankit Rana (CURB representative), Natasha Ramos Padilla, Yadiel Varela-Soler, Gabriela Matos-Ortiz, Patricia Montalvo, Ricardo Martínez Rodríguez, Monica Maldonado, Yarelis Gonzalez-Vargas and Carolina Atunez de Mayolo.

CURB galvanizes Puerto Rican students’ lab experience

For Gabriela Matos-Ortiz, scientific knowledge leapt from the pages of biology textbooks into reality.

Matos-Ortiz arrived from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico to a snow-covered Ithaca in January, but soon warmed to the idea of shadowing other students in the laboratory – thanks to an opportunity from the Cornell Undergraduate Research Board’s (CURB) mentorship program.

“From the first day, I learned so much,” said Matos-Ortiz, a pre-med student, who landed in the laboratory of Joe Peters, Cornell professor of microbiology, and worked with graduate student Michael Petassi.

“I learned bacterial mechanisms,” Matos-Ortiz said. “I was given a tour of lab instruments and I had an opportunity to practice techniques, like separating bacterial colonies, conducting papillation assays, and I collaborated on plasmid purification.”

This summer, in part because of her spring semester lab experience, Matos-Ortiz will intern at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, with Pranav Shivakumar, assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati. She will explore molecular and cellular mechanisms in the pathogenesis of biliary atresia – a rare liver disease in infants.

Cornell welcomed 62 students from the University of Puerto Rico to attend spring semester following the island’s devastation from Hurricane Maria last fall. Colleen Kearns, associate director of the Office of Undergraduate Biology, approached Elena Gupta ’19 and Ankit Rana ’19 of the CURB Peer Mentorship Program to see if the student group could help make research a part of the visiting students’ Cornell experience.

“Although our normal Peer Mentorship Program was already underway, we created the Cornell-UPR Lab Shadowing Program to help,” said Gupta.

Early in the spring semester, UPR students met with CURB members to hone their resumés, receive coaching on interview techniques, and prepare draft inquiries on faculty. CURB reached out to faculty to match the students.

“We were able to successfully pair every UPR student who approached us,” Gupta said, “and they spent their time shadowing and learning about research this semester.”

Ricardo L. Martínez Rodríguez worked at Cornell’s Baker Institute for Animal Health in the virology laboratories of John S.L. Parker, associate professor of virology. “I ran gels, performed cell cultures and I even did a transfection by myself on a bacterial genome,” Rodríguez said.

Yadiel Varela-Soler conducted research with David Putnam, professor of biomedical engineering, working on the future of surgical methods. “It has been one of the most gratifying experiences here in Cornell,” said Varela-Soler. “Not only is it more research experience, but also allows me to learn about biomedical engineering.”

Yarelis Gonzalez-Vargas, majoring in biology and industrial microbiology, conducted research for credit in the lab of Anthony Hay, associate professor of microbiology. Gonzalez-Vargas inoculated human milk samples to demonstrate lipase (enzyme) activity. “Working with Dr. Hay has given me confidence of my lab and research techniques,” she said, “and it has more clearly defined what I want to do for graduate school next year.”

Mariela Bayrón worked in the lab of Andrew Clark, professor of molecular biology and genetics with post-doctoral researcher Yassi Hafezi, studying the Y chromosome of fruit flies, while Natasha M. Ramos Padilla and Anya Sherman went to the lab of Damian Helbling, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. They worked on a project involving chemicals in water.

While conducting literature research for forthcoming experiments in Hay’s lab, Patricia Montalvo performed analysis to visualize microbial community and single microorganism differences. “I stepped out of my comfort zone and challenged myself to be a better student,” Montalvo said. “I feel more prepared for graduate school and more confident on what I – as an undergraduate – have to offer.”

The other students and their faculty mentors are:

  • Erick Perez-Jimenez and Stephanie Rivera Saavedra (Robert Weiss, biomedical sciences)
  • Paola Viviana Amador (Shimon Edelman, psychology)
  • Monica Maldonado and Carolina Andrea Atunez de Mayolo (Esther Angert, microbiology)
  • Gabriela Mariel Alicea Rojas (Kelly Liu, molecular biology and genetics)
  • Valeria Paola Alicea Soto and Erik G Velez Perez (Nilay Yapici, neurobiology and behavior)
  • Victoria Gutierrez-Lorea (Peters)
  • Gabriela Karina Olivera (Hay)
  • Grecia Ivelisse Rivera Rodriguez (Praveen Sethupathy, biomedical sciences)
  • Diego Sotomayor (Dave Lin, neurobiology)

Media Contact

Lindsey Hadlock