Future STEM Stars Gather At UC Davis

Alicia Figueroa
Alicia Figueroa, an UC Davis undergraduate majoring in math and managerial economics, researched Antarctic microbial mats.

Undergraduate researchers and future leaders in science, mathematics and engineering traveled to UC Davis in early March for the 15th annual UC LEADS conference.

The University of California Leadership Excellence through Advanced Degrees (UC LEADS) program provides two-year-long research opportunities to educationally or economically disadvantaged undergraduates in the sciences, mathematics or engineering. The program’s goal is to keep these talented students on the research track by encouraging them to pursue graduate school at a UC campus. UC LEADS sends 85 percent of its students on to Ph.D. programs.

For UC Davis undergraduate Alicia Figueroa, the UC LEADS research program offered a chance to try out a new field. Figueroa, a double major in mathematics and managerial economics, worked on Antarctic microbial mats with Dawn Sumner, chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “I knew nothing about microbial mats when I started,” Figueroa said. “I had to go back to basics and teach myself all the terms. It was really tough, but I did it and now I’m really proud of myself.”

Figueroa used software to measure the height of underwater microbial mats from underwater photographs taken in Lake Joyce, an ice-covered lake in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys. Understanding the microbial growth patterns could help scientists better interpret ancient environments where similar microbial life emerged. “These microbes are important because they were the foundation of life,” Figueroa said.

By presenting at a conference, students like Figueroa gain skills that will be valuable in their academic careers. “It’s a valuable program,” said Angelica Figueroa, mother to Alicia and a principal at Resurrection Catholic School in Boyle Heights in east Los Angeles. “More students should have this opportunity to present their research. It’s great to see all her hard work pay off at the end.”

For the conference, students prepared a poster that clearly and concisely summarizes their findings, as they would for an academic research conference. The symposium also paired presenters with scientist judges who quizzed them on methods and results.

“The exposure to undergraduate research, especially for this diverse group, is invaluable,” said Lynne Arcangel, the UC Davis LEADS coordinator. Many of the students are the first in their family to attend college, she said. Conducting long-term research benefits undergraduates by building confidence and motivation and developing mentoring relationships with faculty, Arcangel added.

Each UC campus has a LEADS program. The program is funded by the University of California, the UC Office of the President and the California State Legislature. The Office of Graduate Studies at UC Davis oversees the statewide UC program. Students in the two-year program begin their research experience in the summer on their home campus, as rising juniors. The second summer is spent at another UC campus conducting research.

“I really enjoyed the research and mentoring process,” said Susana Ramirez Perez, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major at UC Davis. Ramirez Perez studied how aluminum parts warp, or distort, during manufacturing. The project’s goal was to create a tool that can help manufacturers prevent and predict distortion. “Good mentoring can make or break your project.”

In addition to summer research, during the academic year, students learn about different career paths in STEM. Pedro Garcia Carrillo, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major at UC Davis, said he was inspired by a trip to Intuitive Surgical in Sunnyvale, which manufactures surgery robots. “I still definitely plan to go to graduate school, but now I might take time to work in industry first,” he said. 

UC LEADS also helps students navigate the path to graduate school. Coordinators provide guidance on GRE preparation, career workshops, advising, networking and travel to professional meetings. Arcangel said she even coaches students on discussing graduate school with parents who may worry about cost or careers. “The research part is almost the easiest,” Arcangel said. 

Becky Oskin, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science