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Beckman Scholars Program selects 2 UCLA undergraduates for 2023-2024 scholarship

Third-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student Cecilia McCormick (left) and third-year chemistry student Amanda Nguyen (right) are pictured. The two were selected as the 2023-2024 UCLA Beckman Scholars, a program that awards $18,200 for undergraduate research. (From left to right: Ella Greenberg Winnick/Daily Bruin and Stella Gray/Daily Bruin)

By Yashila Suresh

May 26, 2023 3:49 p.m.

This post was updated June 5 at 12:11 a.m. 

The UCLA Beckman Scholars Program selected two undergraduate researchers in May as the organization’s 2023-2024 scholars.

The scholarship – which is part of a national program funded by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation – is awarded annually to two undergraduate researchers for an honors or departmental thesis project under the supervision of a UCLA Beckman faculty member. Recipients of the academic scholarship are given $18,200 for 15 months of research, during which they will present their findings at conferences including the UCLA Undergraduate Research and Creativity Showcase and the Beckman Symposium.

Amanda Nguyen, a third-year chemistry student, was one of the two recipients selected for the scholarship. Nguyen said she first got involved in a lab in the winter to get more experience in creating and presenting research.

“I think there’s a lot about working in a research lab that you can’t learn from being in class,” Nguyen said.

She added that researching one or two specific problems allows undergraduate students to become more independent in their learning and education, which can’t be achieved in most undergraduate classes.

Nguyen said she was surprised she won the scholarship, as she only recently began her research journey. Benjamin Schwartz, Nguyen’s mentor and a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, said he nominated Nguyen for the scholarship because she is a motivated student, describing her as positive and enthusiastic.

“There are some people who do it (research) because they want a notch on their resume, … and then there are some who are in it because they love the science,” Schwartz said. “Amanda clearly falls into the latter category.”

Nguyen said her research focuses on identifying and manipulating polymers – large molecules that act as building blocks in the body – to create renewable sources of energy. She said that through the program, she will build on her work in Schwartz’s lab, which focuses on how to use renewable thermoelectric and solar energy to make electricity.

Nguyen added that while she was first interested in pursuing a career in biochemistry, she was inspired to pursue a career in chemistry and material sciences after taking classes in those subjects at UCLA and seeing the potential to make an impact.

“I would like to use that knowledge and apply it to solve real-world problems,” Nguyen said.

Schwartz added that he intends to support Nguyen as a research mentor and will help her by sharing ideas and discussions about her research.

Cecilia McCormick, a third-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student, was the second recipient of the scholarship. Alexander Spokoyny, McCormick’s supervisor and an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, said McCormick has the passion and ambition necessary for research.

“This might sound a little bit cliche, but she’s sort of a full package,” Spokoyny said. “She’s got the intellectual drive and curiosity and also the broader understanding of science that … the Beckman Foundation is looking (for).”

McCormick said she will study ways to improve the efficiency of drug delivery into the body. She added that her research will be focusing on how to use boron clusters, molecular cages that act as transporters of the drugs, to increase efficiency of medication delivery into cells – a process that is currently very labor-intensive.

“Typically in drug development, when you think about developing a carrier system, you need to make sure that that carrier is super specific to the drug of interest,” she said. “What’s exciting about the boron clusters is that they can potentially bring a whole range of different molecules into the cell without having to worry about that very specific interaction between the cargo and the carrier system.”

McCormick added that the scholarship enables her to focus on her research without worrying about how to finance her project and provides other benefits, including funding for future graduate program applications. 

McCormick said Qiao Qiao Wang – McCormick’s mentor and a doctoral student in biochemistry, molecular and structural biology – and Spokoyny have both supported her academic pursuits. She added that they helped her prepare and apply for the scholarship.

Both scholars said they are looking forward to officially becoming involved in the Beckman Scholars community and interacting with other scholars from around the country. Nguyen and McCormick said they plan to pursue graduate degrees in their respective fields after their undergraduate studies.

“Having this focus on research throughout the next two years will be really, really substantial (in my) ability to improve my skills before I head into a Ph.D.,” McCormick said. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be supported as I prepare for that long process.”

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