Inside USD

USD’s Scholars of Summer

Thursday, July 17, 2014

San Diego, a popular summertime destination, offers major attractions and, with it, memorable experiences.

Think we’re talking about the zoo, Balboa Park, beaches, Sea World, Comic-Con or the fairgrounds and race track in Del Mar? Sure, they’re nice, but at the University of San Diego and for its Summer Scholars, the “major” summertime attraction has a completely different meaning.

Be it as a McNair Scholar, Keck Foundation Student Fellow, Beckman Foundation Scholar or as a SURE or PURE student, summertime at USD is a prime time for them to shine in their major area of study.

“I feel very fortunate to work here in the lab during the summer,” said sophomore biology major Chyna Gray, a Summer Undergraduate Research Experience recipient. She’s returned to Biology Professor Hugh Ellis’ lab to maintain data and research of Eared Grebes, a diving waterbird species. Gray did a Pre-Undergraduate Research Experience last summer. Now she’s fulfilling her duties and is a mentor to new PURE student, Luis Estevez.

“Teaching it has made me feel more comfortable with the research and more accountable since I’m telling it to him,” Gray said.

Knowing that students are getting the most out of their summer experience is a great feeling for Sonia Zarate, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research.

“This summer, we’re privileged to support 105 undergraduate students and their faculty mentors in research and creative activities,” she said. “Building on the momentum of previous years, this year’s community of undergraduate research scholars represent the majority of the departments in the college and the schools; from physics to art, architecture and visual arts to the business and engineering schools.”

Support from the Doheny Foundation and Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation also makes Zarate happy. This summer the PURE program has a USD-record 12 students and more inclusion.

“We’re excited to expand our programming to include incoming transfer students, some of which are veterans of the armed forces,” Zarate said.

Navy veterans Yuri Bejarano-Rodriguez and Ernesto Reyes, and Danny Cerda, who served in the Army, are welcome additions to the Summer Scholars designation. They’ll begin classes at USD this fall, but right now, they’re actively involved in marine science, biology and mechanical engineering projects, respectively.

Reyes (pictured, right) is from El Cajon, graduated from El Cajon High School and enters USD after attending San Diego City College. Bejarano-Rodriguez was born in Colombia, came to the U.S. at age 9 in New York and served in the Navy before her recent arrival in San Diego. Cerda, who transferred to USD from San Diego Mesa College, is originally from the central California town of Bakersfield.

Reyes, who served five years and was deployed to Afghanistan as a corpsman, is working in Biology Professor Adam Haberman’s lab where he’s focused on the “comparison of activity dependence of neurodegenerative disease models in Drosophila melanogaster.”

Reyes, 25, is considering a medical career and his interest stems from dealing with trauma cases while in the field and, later, seeing fellow veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the ineffectiveness of the drugs used to treat them.

“We’re studying the mechanism of all of these degenerative diseases and trying to figure out what’s causing them, why they’re affecting the neurons and what’s causing the neurons to die so quickly,” he said. “Once I got back into school, I got really interested in the sciences, such as psychology. Everything about the mind and the brain is interesting to me. We just don’t know enough about it.”

Bejarano-Rodriguez (pictured, left), 26, was a logistics specialist aboard a ship where she worked with up to nine squadrons during her four years of service. Prior to that, she had two short academic stints at New York-based colleges. Five years later, her excitement for being accepted to USD, a Catholic university, means a lot.

Already this summer she looks and feels confident and poised while doing research work on California killifish (Fundulus parvipinnis) in Marine Sciences Professor Drew Talley’s lab.

While admittedly not fond of fish, Bejarano-Rodriguez’s work is quite helpful. She’s viewing the research work as a chance to aid the killifish’s survival as wetlands drainage threatens its natural habitat.

“The wetlands in California are 94 percent gone, so it’s crucial to pay attention to these things. It affects the fish and the birds, the things that feed in the habitat and what they feed off.”

As for her own path, Bejarano has approximately two more years of college to finish. She spoke highly of the PURE opportunity, her faculty mentor (Talley) and the support USD has provided.

“They reached out and told me I was eligible to do (PURE),” she said. “When they asked me to come to this research program, I was really excited because I knew I’d be doing something cool.”

Cerda (pictured, right), 32 and married, is equally excited. The former Army mechanic who did two tours of Iraq and was also stationed for a time in Germany, is enjoying his acclimation to USD and working with Mechanical Engineering Professor David Malicky.

“When I looked at USD, I thought it would be the best fit. The people I’ve met so far really care about me and care about my education. Also, the small class size, the helpful professors and being on a Catholic university. Just hearing (The Immaculata’s) church bells is awesome.”

Engineering-wise, Cerda said he’s passionate about building and designing a kinetic sculpture, a non-electric device that can go for 12 hours on one winding via a constant force spring motor.

He’s likely to utilize his military background to meet others on campus. Perhaps he’ll join USD’s Student Veteran Organization and visit the soon-to-be-completed Veteran Center during his academic journey. He worked in a leadership role in Mesa College’s veteran student organization, helping other veterans who were returning to school.

“It’s not an easy transition, but in the Army, you learn about discipline and just getting things done. That’s what I’m trying to do now in school.”

That’s good advice. The work being done now by USD Summer Scholars will help them reach their desired destination.

— Ryan T. Blystone

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