During her second year of undergraduate research in the lab of Aldrin Gomes, Department of Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior, Emily Eijansantos felt ready for a solo project. She’d spent her sophomore year learning the lab’s techniques and shadowing more experienced undergraduates. She felt prepared. But like many things in life, the project—studying ibuprofen’s effects on heart cells—had its hurdles.
“A lot of people don’t know, even though it’s widely prescribed, that ibuprofen does have side effects,” said Eijansantos, a graduating senior who has been recognized with the University Medal, UC Davis’ top graduating senior award. “It increases oxidative stress in your heart and it’s associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease.”
Researching heart disease
Eijansantos hypothesized ibuprofen damaged heart cells through activation of an enzyme called NADPH oxidase 4. To test this, she used funding from a Provost’s Undergraduate Fellowship to purchase a kit necessary for her experiments. But the kit was incompatible with her experimental cells.
“It took me a while to actually realize this because I thought I was just making a bunch of mistakes,” said Eijansantos, a neurobiology, physiology and behavior major. “It was really frustrating, but Dr. Gomes motivated me to keep trying.”
Together, the two brainstormed an alternative method and ran the experiment successfully. But it turned out that NADPH oxidase 4 wasn’t affected by ibuprofen.
Though the hypothesis was incorrect, the experience didn’t deter Eijansantos. Instead, it taught her about the nature of the scientific process and the value of perseverance.
“Succeeding after overcoming significant problems or even failure in some aspects of research results is a more rewarding and intellectually stimulating research experience for students,” said Gomes. “I tell students when they join the lab that they will make mistakes, they might break research tubes and beakers and they are likely to fail initially, but they will get better and then succeed.”
An unexpected decision
Though now recognized as the top graduating senior, Eijansantos didn’t intend to attend UC Davis. She fell in love with the university by happenstance. Her best friend from high school, who was interested in veterinary medicine, asked Eijansantos to accompany her on a tour of the UC Davis campus.
“At that point, I thought I was finished with tours,” Eijansantos said. “Then I got here, and I was so amazed by what I saw. I just loved the feel. I remember walking in the quad towards Memorial Union, and I was just taking everything in. All the students that we bumped into and talked to were all very authentic people, and their enthusiasm for being in Davis really struck me.”
The experience convinced Eijansantos to apply and eventually enroll at UC Davis. She found the university’s culture lived up to her first impressions. The professors and faculty were accessible, and they taught Eijansantos how to critically sift through scientific literature, evaluating experimental designs and the veracity of claims.
“I didn’t have that mindset until I came here,” she said.
“Emily really blossomed after being awarded the Provost’s Undergraduate Fellowship,” said Gomes. “Her enthusiasm and confidence is evidenced by laboratory visitors frequently thinking that she’s a graduate student.”
Eijansantos’ current research concerns the immunoproteasome, which is part of the ubiquitin proteasome system that’s responsible for protein turnover in our cells. This system is incredibly important to combating oxidative stress in our cells, which in turn damage the body. The heart is especially sensitive to oxidative stress.
“The immunoproteasome focuses on degrading oxidized proteins and in immune functions,” Eijansantos said. “So people have been really interested in its function in cardiac health.”
According to Eijansantos, studies have even linked increased immunoproteasome expression to longevity in rodents and primate models.
Eijansantos herself studied immunoproteasome activity in young Ames dwarf mice—which have a mutation that causes dwarfism but allows them to live about 50 percent longer than normal mice. She found young Ames dwarf mice experience a statistically significant increase in the amount of immunoproteasome activity compared to age-matched wild type mice. This might mean that Ames dwarf mice are particularly well-quipped to cope with oxidative stress at advanced ages.
Finding community at UC Davis
Not only is Eijansantos active in the lab, she’s also active in the campus community. She’s a member of Davis Wushu, a student-run martial arts club, and volunteers at the CONNECTED clinic, which provides a support group for new mothers with postpartum depression and anxiety.
While the concept of postpartum depression isn’t personally familiar to Eijansantos, she wanted to be involved in a mental health clinic due to facing her own bouts of anxiety in the past.
This academic year, Eijansantos found an opportunity to combine her two extracurricular activities. She organized “Fight the Stigma: A Charity Showcase,” a martial arts performance show. Proceeds raised from the show will support mental health clinics that benefit mothers.
After graduation, Eijansantos plans to take a gap year while applying to medical school. She also has her sights set on a job working with children with developmental disorders.
“Now that I feel better about myself, I want to help other people feel the same,” she said.