Bita Shahrvini Recognized with Undergraduate of the Year and Ronald and Lydia Baskin Awards
Bita Shahrvini knew she found a special place when she visited UC Davis prior to her freshmen year. The vibe on the picturesque campus was easygoing and friendly, complimenting a strong current of academic rigor.
“I knew it was the place for me,” said Shahrvini, a biochemistry and molecular biology major. “I just felt at home here.”
Four years later, Shahrvini is getting ready to cross the commencement stage. She’ll leave UC Davis with two of the top College of Biological Sciences undergraduate accolades, the Ronald and Lydia Baskin Award, which recognizes a graduating senior for excellence in biological sciences research, and the Undergraduate of the Year Award, which is given to an outstanding graduating senior from the college.
“I was just doing what interested me throughout my undergraduate career, and I had fun doing it so that’s the biggest reward, just having these experiences,” Shahrvini said. “But then this recognition, it just validated all the hard work that I put in through all the years. It felt really good.”
A catalyst for biochemistry
Shahrvini got involved in research at UC Davis at the end of her first fall quarter. Up until that point, her classes had reinforced her interest in biochemistry, and she found herself particularly intrigued with enzymology, the study of enzymes.
“There’s so much that we’ve understood but also so much more to understand,” Shahrvini said of her interest in biochemistry research. “The complexity of life is something that humanity has been interested in since the beginning, so understanding the science behind it is intriguing to me.”
Early on, Shahrvini met Associate Professor Enoch Baldwin, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and the two started talking about Baldwin’s enzymology research. The ideas captivated Shahrvini. A few weeks later, she joined the Baldwin Lab.
“I have rarely had a student in my lab for four whole years, which has been really rewarding,” said Baldwin. “Bita has shown remarkable commitment, given her career interests and the accompanying course and activity load.”
Growing her skill set
According to Baldwin, Shahrvini took to lab work with gusto, demonstrating patience and a willingness to learn. Soon, performing enzyme assays became routine for her. Baldwin thought Shahrvini needed a new challenge. On the verge of going on sabbatical, he recommended that she contact his collaborator Assistant Professor John Albeck, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.
“Bita did a fine job with enzymology, demonstrating independence, a strong work ethic and careful hands,” Baldwin said. “Her most recent project demanded much time and independence.”
Shahrvini’s current research, conducted in tandem with the Albeck and Baldwin Labs, focuses on the location of an enzyme called CTP synthetase in the cell. CTP synthetase is capable of traveling throughout the cell’s cytoplasm, but its structure varies. Some present themselves as punctate spherical structures, while others form as long filaments, according to Shahrvini.
“We noticed that these dots seem to travel to cell peripheries and cell-to-cell contacts, so we hypothesized that they might be playing a role in membrane restructuring or cell-to-cell signaling,” said Shahrvini.
The enzyme, according to Shahrvini, has been a research target for cancer and parasitic drugs because inhibiting it can stop the proliferation of diseases. Shahrvini is trying to determine what mechanisms allow CTP synthetase to travel from the cell’s center to its peripheries.
A mind for service
Aside from her interest in science research, Shahrvini also has a fondness for charity. She’s the co-president of the Alzheimer’s Buddies, a UC Davis-affiliated organization that helps foster meaningful connections between UC Davis students and people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
“We pair up UC Davis students with residents in local nursing homes,” said Shahrvini, who’s been with the organization for around two years. “We visit them weekly and just get to know them, their personalities and build relationships with them.”
Shahrvini experienced first-hand the consequences of these neurodegenerative disorders. Both her grandparents suffered from the diseases.
“Having witnessed Alzheimer’s destroy their vibrancy, I was really motivated to become involved with the cause here in Davis,” she said. “Even just being there to hold someone’s hand, it can make that much of a difference.”
Looking to the future, Shahrvini said she plans on taking a gap year after graduation to apply to medical school. She also hopes to find a research position in a clinical or wet lab. Regardless, she plans on bringing her passion wherever she goes.
“Bita earned both of these awards on her own,” said Baldwin. “Her high GPA and many activities outside of class and lab really speak to her amazing energy, drive and efficiency.”