Outstanding undergraduate researchers honored as Beckman Scholars


A year into UC Davis’ association with the prestigious Beckman Scholars Program, inaugural awardees Natalie Telis and Molly Fensterwald are gearing up for their second summer of undergraduate research in two of campus’s most sought-after labs.

Telis, graduating with a double major in Math and Cell Biology, is conducting research to determine a specific protein’s role in DNA repair in Microbiology professor Wolf Heyer’s lab. Fensterwald, graduating in Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior, is working in Chemistry professor Jared Shaw’s lab to study new inhibitors for bacterial cell division.

The program has offered both students an unparalleled opportunity to gain real-world research experience.

“The research that I’m doing is about interacting networks of proteins involved in DNA repair in the event of a double-stranded break,” Telis said. “If both strands of a double helix break, then there are all these new patterns for how they might go back together. Improper healing can trigger a lot of problems such as cancer.”

Cells need to have mechanisms to make sure DNA heals properly, and there are many proteins involved in making sure that that works exactly right. Telis’ research focuses on one of those proteins, called RAD55.

“The really great thing about the Beckman program is it requires you to innovate on your own project,” Telis said. “It forces you to deal with the realities of research and problem-solve when things don’t go as planned. Troubleshooting for eight weeks is nothing to a grad student, but undergraduates don’t often get the chance to think and work this way.”

Her time in Heyer’s lab has helped Telis both affirm that she wants to continue in academics and prepare her for graduate school at Stanford, where she will begin in the biomedical informatics Ph.D. program in the fall.

“Natalie is an outstanding student who is not only interested in the interface of mathematics and biology, but is one of very few students that I have encountered who is aptly qualified for this emerging field with a solid academic background and undergraduate research experience in both areas,” Heyer said.

“By the end of her Beckman project, Natalie will be trained in molecular yeast genetics. Recombination is an esoteric field, but she immediately understood the significance of the proteins she works with and the complexities of their posttranscriptional regulation.”

Like Telis, Fensterwald is working on DNA research, but from a biochemical research angle. She has also won the Chemistry Department’s highest undergraduate award this year, the R. Bryan Miller Undergraduate Research Award.

In Shaw’s lab, Fensterwald is working with a graduate student to discover new compounds that inhibit bacterial DNA gyrase in the hope of finding new antibiotics.

“Gram-negative bacteria have an extra membrane that makes them hard to kill,” Fensterwald said. “We are designing a library of compounds to make in the lab that are specific to try to kill this type of bacteria.”

Although Fensterwald had conducted psychology research before, working in a chemistry lab was a whole new experience for her.

“Molly has been on a steep upward trajectory, with little synthetic chemistry experience when she joined my lab,” Shaw said. “She works hard and has gotten to the point where she can make original contributions to the project by designing new molecules, synthesizing them, and testing their activity. This is a rare level of intellectual agility for an undergraduate and I think it is a harbinger of Molly’s future success as a scientist.”

Shaw added that Fensterwald will be taking the lead on her research project in her second Beckman summer.

“She will be working with 100% autonomy, in part because she is ready to do so and in part because her grad student mentor, Jared Moore, is leaving for an internship and she will be the only one carrying the project forward!”

According to Fensterwald, her CBS major gave her a solid foundation of knowledge that allowed her to hit the ground running in a chemistry lab and to understand her research from at a more fundamental level.

“My major requires all this biochem and I studied about all these research techniques,” Fensterwald said. “I think it’s important for classes to introduce research techniques because it may seem really abstract, but when you do go into the lab, it all makes sense.”

Fensterwald plans to pursue both an M.D. and a Ph.D. after graduation.

“I’ve always known I was interested in healing and medicine, but the Beckman program has given me a great foundation to affirm that I want to do research too, whether it be clinical or hands-on benchwork while I’m doing my M.D.,” she said.

UC Davis was selected as one of 11 universities to receive the prestigious 2012-2015 Beckman Scholar's Program Award, which recognizes outstanding undergraduate students in chemistry, biochemistry, biological and medical sciences research at select universities and colleges throughout the United States.

The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation is an independent, non-profit foundation with the mission of supporting basic scientific research.

The purpose of the Beckman Scholars Program is to help stimulate, encourage and support research activities by exceptionally talented, full-time undergraduate students who have the potential to be outstanding leaders of the next generation of researchers. Awardees receive a total of $19,300 spread over two summers and one academic year.