When Sienna Rocha left San Diego to pursue a degree in neurobiology, physiology and behavior at UC Davis, she brought more than her belongings with her. The first-generation college student also carried encouragement from her family and a passion for science, although little more experience than conducting experiments on potatoes.
Today, thanks to her tenacity and the UC Davis Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE) program, she is contributing to the research of a renowned UC Davis cancer geneticist.
Rocha is from a big Mexican family, with limited resources at home and school. Both of her parents had immigrated to the U.S. when they were children, and her great-grandmother still lives in a tiny town in Mexico. Rocha wanted to learn more about biology and pursue a career in scientific research, but had nowhere to turn.
“For me, going into science was super difficult because I never had anyone to ask for help,” the 19-year-old Rocha says. “Since the fifth grade I did everything on my own.”
CURE is a program funded by the National Institutes of Health to provide long-term mentorship and cancer research opportunities to disadvantaged students during their undergraduate years. The program at UC Davis is managed by Connie Champagne, director of educational enrichment and outreach programs (EEOP), and has served 28 students to date — several of whom went to medical school, graduate school, or are employed as researchers. Students come from African American, Hispanic, Hmong and Korean backgrounds, most are socioeconomically disadvantaged, and half of the participants are women.
For Rocha, the decision to pursue cancer research was personal.
“I’ve been interested in cancer since I was younger. A friend died from leukemia when I was little, and right now my niece has thyroid cancer,” Rocha says. “I want to help cure this disease that hurts families and lives.”
Rocha completed her first and second years in the Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program (BUSP) at UC Davis before she connected with her mentor, Luís Carvajal-Carmona, assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine, whose lab is in the Genome Center.
Rocha was intimidated at first because of limited lab experience, but her peers and other CURE members made her feel at home. She recalls conducting only one scientific experiment in high school where she measured the volume of potatoes immersed in different substances.
“The first time I stepped into a lab was when I came to UC Davis,” Rocha says. “I felt super out of place, and like I didn’t belong here. Having them (my peers) give me little tips helped me grow and feel more comfortable.”
In the Carvajal-Carmona lab, Rocha is studying models called patient-derived xenografts in which researchers implant a human gastric tumor into an immune-deficient mouse. Once the tumor grows, it is analyzed to see which genes were passed on and is compared to other gastric cancer driver genes in a databank.
“It was different for me to go on this path. Until I got to UC Davis I had no one to advise me or tell me what the next steps were.” — Yasmin Esparza
Yasmin Esparza, a 21-year-old CURE participant and fourth-year biochemistry major, has a similar background. Her parents had minimal education, so it was important to them that their children had more academic opportunities. Esparza’s curiosity about how the body works inspired her to study science — something no one in her family had done.
“It was different for me to go on this path,” Esparza says. “Until I got to UC Davis, I had no one to advise me or tell me what the next steps were. When Dr. Champagne told me there was a primary investigator looking for undergraduate researchers, she pointed me in that direction and led me to my mentor.”
CURE participants spend 30–40 hours during the summer in the lab and up to 10 hours doing research in the fall, winter and spring quarters. Their mentors encourage a healthy school-life balance and check in with students to make sure they can balance lab time with academic demands.
Esparza caught the research bug as a high school junior after a trip to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland where she had the chance to hold a human liver in the cadaver lab.
“In that moment I was so interested in how the body works,” Esparza says about the experience. “I thought it was so cool to see what was going on inside of us, and I wanted to know the interactions within systems of the body.”
Esparza works with Gerardo Mackenzie, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition.
“Dr. Mackenzie makes sure I’m getting good grades,” Esparza says. “He cares about me, my education and my future and wants me to succeed in all aspects of my life.
Esparza is currently helping to research whether a turmeric derivative, used in combination with a standard-of-care drug, can improve the pancreatic cancer treatment.
CURE participants also benefit from peer support. They gather once a week to read a scientific publication and analyze the research findings. A faculty moderator listens while students discuss the paper.
“The first time I stepped into a lab was when I came to UC Davis. I felt super out of place, and like I didn’t belong here. Having them (my peers) give me little tips helped me grow and feel more comfortable.” — Sienna Rocha
Champagne, who also directs BUSP, feels a kinship with the students.
“As a first-generation college student and immigrant, I had to jump through many of the same hoops,” she says.
When Champagne was asked to lead the program three years ago, she was excited by the offer. Her husband, now deceased after a battle with cancer, encouraged her to accept her role in EEOP because of her special connection to undergraduate students.
“These are my kids,” Champagne says. “One of the most exciting parts of my job is to encounter students like Yasmin and Sienna, who are a little shy and nervous at first. It’s an absolute joy to watch them grow and develop.”
The supplemental grant that funds CURE will not be renewed; however, Champagne plans to apply for a Youth Enjoy Science (YES) grant and to collaborate with UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center leadership to maintain the program for future generations.
While Esparza and Rocha don’t know exactly what their futures hold, they both plan to continue to pursue cancer research, thanks to Champagne, Mackenzie and Carvajal-Carmona.
“CURE really helps because it’s aimed toward underrepresented minorities,” Rocha says. “People like us don’t have that chance before coming to college. It’s given us direction and more opportunities than we thought we had.”
This story originally appeared in Synthesis, the magazine of the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center