Getting a JumpStart on Success
23 Aug 22
Through the DIA JumpStart program, non-USC undergraduates interested in pursuing a PhD spend the summer in USC research labs.
BY DANIEL P. SMITH
The moment Angelita Araujo-Villalba heard about the USC Diversity, Inclusion, Access (DIA) JumpStart program at USC, she knew she had to apply.
Then a sophomore at Cal Poly Pomona studying molecular and cellular biology, Araujo-Villalba had just two days to complete her JumpStart application. Hustling to get the job done, she drafted statements on her research interests and professional goals, tidied up her resumé and secured a letter of recommendation and school transcripts just in time to meet the program’s deadline.
“It was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up,” Araujo-Villalba says. “I wanted to get my foot in the door with research experience and extend my network.”
Now a staple on USC’s summer calendar, DIA JumpStart works with USC schools and programs, including the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC, to provide historically underrepresented candidates from outside institutions a 10-week research opportunity in one of the many PhD disciplines across the USC ecosystem.
Designed as a pathway to increasing diversity in the PhD ranks at USC and beyond, JumpStart provides students interested in graduate studies hands-on training, aca-demic and financial support and professional development opportunities, including USC Graduate School-sponsored sessions on topics such as post-graduate admissions, PhD funding and PhD student life.
While the JumpStart program provides a rich collection of experiences and practical skills for students like Araujo-Villalba, it also gives a boost to participating USC labs and promises to push discovery forward.
Preparing students for PhD work
Selected as a JumpStart 2021 scholar, Araujo-Villalba joined the lab of University Professor Yang Chai PhD ’91, DDS ’96, director of the Center for Craniofacial Molecular Biology at USC. There, she worked with and around postdoctoral scholars in a cutting-edge lab researching craniofacial birth defects.
Learning the ins and outs of scientific investigation, including how to formulate hypotheses, test and evaluate results to propel research, Araujo-Villalba was introduced to graduate-level lab techniques, such as studying histology and cell culture. She also learned about cell analysis and gained experience with research-critical equipment like CT scan machines.
“It would be an understatement to call my JumpStart experience in Dr. Chai’s lab anything less than incredibly valuable and important. It has expanded my knowledge base on how a research-heavy academic environment thrives and has also set me up for future success.” — Angelita Araugo-Villalba
“As an undergraduate, it’s rare to be in this type of high-level academic and research environment,” Araujo-Villalba says. “But this was an environment where I was allowed to be inquisitive and learn, which made the experience that much more beneficial for me.”
Like Araujo-Villalba, Maximus Lopez earned a JumpStart program slot in Summer 2022 and spent 10 weeks working inside the Chai Lab.
A rising junior at Cal State Long Beach pursuing a degree in biomedical engineering, Lopez calls his JumpStart experience “exceptionally meaningful.” The Van Nuys resident performed genotyping and cultured cells. He worked with mouse models and participated in cryosectioning experiments.
Lopez says his time in Chai’s lab invited him into the world of pediatrics and analytical science, confirming his interest in those fields. His 10-week JumpStart run also demonstrated the unending value of foundational scientific principles and the earnest com-mitment necessary to pursue original research.
“I certainly developed lab skills I can carry into my future work, but what most stood out was the focus of the lab’s postdocs and how fully invested they are in their work,” says Lopez, who hopes to pursue a dual MD-PhD program down the line. “It was important for me to see that firsthand because I’m a firm believer you become who you are surrounded by.”
A win-win program
JumpStart’s benefits, however, extend far beyond the student participants.
For Chai, whose lab has a long-running history of welcoming students from underrepresented populations through its doors, JumpStart injects youth and diversity into research, two ingredients he considers necessary to fueling scientific discovery.
“It’s important to get students excited about science, to expose them to research and how we work,” says Chai, Ostrow’s Associate Dean of Research. “When we can get young scientists with different experiences and backgrounds together, that’s when sparks fly because people are looking at problems from different perspectives.”
Chai says the presence of JumpStart students enlivens his lab with fresh energy and strengthens the experience of his postdocs, so many of whom will land faculty positions in higher education.
“It’s important to get students excited about science, to expose them to research and how we work. When we can get young scientists with different experiences and backgrounds together, that’s when sparks fly because people are looking at problems from different perspectives.”
—University Professor Yang Chai
“It’s through this interaction with JumpStart students that the postdocs learn how to mentor students and provide guidance, which will be so critical to their research careers as well,” says Chai, who feels a keen responsibility as an educator to create a dynamic, inclusive learning environment for both the JumpStart students and his postdocs. “We need young people to be excited about science, so they embrace it as a career, and science can continue to be innovative.”
Count Araujo-Villalba among the young scientists energized by JumpStart and her time with Chai and his enthusiastic team.
One week before her program ended in August 2021, Araujo-Villalba asked if she could continue working at the Chai lab. She spent much of the 2021-2022 academic year working alongside one of Chai’s postdocs. While Araujo-Villalba enhanced her lab research skills, she also earned a co-author byline on a recent paper discussing a genetic mutation that causes cleft palate.
“It would be an understatement to call my JumpStart experience in Dr. Chai’s lab anything less than incredibly valuable and important,” says Araujo-Villalba, who plans to apply to medical school next year. “It has expanded my knowledge base on how a research-heavy academic environment thrives and has also set me up for future success.”
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