Laleh Boroujerdi-Rad

1. What is your specific area of research (include the name of your faculty and/or laboratory)?

I do research in two areas of biology: physiology and molecular biology. In physiology, I investigate the bioenergetics of development in skate embryos at the biomechanics laboratory, under the mentorship of the "fabulous fish guy," Dr. Adam Summers. My research project profiles the metabolic rate in these fish using two principle methods, respirometry and calorimetry. Respirometry is measuring the oxygen consumption then correlating the rate of consumption with the amount of energy expended over time. This represents the total energy of the developing skate. Calorimetry, however, measures the energy invested in the tissue of the developing embryo. With these measurements, we are able to determine the energy budget of the developing embryo, including such factors as conversion efficiency, and nutrient allocation (e.g. lipid metabolism, etc.).

My research in molecular biology was done at the department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology, at the UCI College of Medicine, under the mentorship of Dr. Bert Semler. There, I investigated a precursor protein found in a family of small viruses called picornaviruses. Infamous members of this family include polio virus, hepatitis A, and the avian encephalomyelitis. The precursor protein, 3CD, is composed of a polymerase and protease, which also exist as independent viral proteins. While the function of this protein has not yet been fully understood, solving its structure is the major challenge. We must find an optimal expression system and conditions in which to express the protein with high yield. Although we have successfully found this optimal expression system, the next step is to purify the protein enough to obtain crystals detectable by X-ray crystallography. Solving the structure is a major step towards unlocking some of the secrets of the infectious cycle, which may lead to possible targets for therapy.

2. When and how did you first get involved in research?

I give major credit to my parents who have always stressed the importance of science and research. I also give credit to my brother, Abel, whose early start in research inspired me to give chase! I began research during my sophomore year in high school by applying for a summer research fellowship offered by the Burns and Allen Research Institute at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. There, I was the only student to take on two projects, one in medical genetics and another in cytogenetics. The medical genetics project looked at the syndromic distribution of fetal akinesia, a pre-natal condition in which the fetus suffers paralysis. The goal of this project was to study all the cases, determine the etiology, and investigate the different causes and the many conditions that lead to debilitating disease. The second project focused on nondisjunctional low level mosaicism. This is a condition in which a small population of cells in the body expresses more or less than two copies of the same chromosome. I worked on trisomy (three copies) of chromosomes 21 and 22, which cause chronic lymphocytic Leukemia and chronic myelogenous lymphoma, respectively. Even though these cells were present in small number in the patient, diagnosis became difficult, since artifacts of these do occur in normal individuals. My project was to determine a realistic boundary between cellular artifacts and the manifestation of the disease. These experiences inspired me to start research immediately when I came to UCI. The rest, as they say, is history.

3. How has research enhanced your education?

Research was, and still is, an integral part of my education. Research gives you more than graphs, equations, theories, which, as important as all of these are, can only give you a picture and a story. Research however, gives you experience and an intuition for the natural order of science. Whether you are a chemist studying the chemical properties of lanthanides or a molecular biologist working day and night to characterize a new protein, the experience of engaging the sciences is one that is unparalleled by any educational experience. When I listen to a professor lecture about what research has shown, I can visualize exactly the methods they must have used and considerations they might have taken. Above all else, research gives you a dose of critical thinking and healthy skepticism, which are the key ingredients to the investigative mind.

4. What has been your favorite experience with research (include any interesting stories or specific events)?

The most exciting part about doing research is presenting my material at conferences. Conferences are wonderful because I get to share my research findings with those from the same field; it is very fulfilling to sit down and discuss material with faculty from around the world that work on the topic that I have researched. All of the sudden, I am no longer one person in one lab doing this research, I have become part of an international community of scientists with different experiences, views, theories and what have you, but all speaking the same language. Another beautiful part of research is travel, especially to the international conferences. I can't seem to fall asleep the night before the trip; I am just too hyper to lie down, so I treat my family to a mock presentation marathon. Only family members can bear to listen to my presentation over and over, and still manage to keep smiles on their faces!

5. What are your future plans and how has being involved in research helped to prepare you to meet your goals?

My prime motivation is medicine. I plan to apply to medical school this year, while using the extra year to do research or enroll in a degree program. Although medicine, as it stands right now, does not support research endeavors very well, I believe the trend is changing to emphasize more research experience. Medical research is integral to the field of clinical medicine, from developing therapies, to proper diagnosis. I feel that it is the constant responsibility of physicians to keep up with the latest in biotechnology and other medical sciences to provide the best treatment and medical care to patients. The research I do is a stepping stone towards my career as a medical scientist. In medicine, research is both a mean and ends.

6. What advice would you give to a student interested in pursuing a faculty-mentored undergraduate research project or creative activity?

I have five main pieces of advices. First, make sure you take your time to do background research on your options. Don't jump into a lab without reading some of the work they have done. If you are not sure what your interests are, look into the issues that you are passionate about. The best resource for the Biology Department is the departmental website, www.bio.uci.edu. This site has all the faculty profiles, along with links to their lab websites, publications and everything you need to make an informed choice. If you are required to take a class with the faculty you want to approach, do it-you will never regret it-because, if worse comes to worse, at least you know that this is not something that interests you. Second, try to commit to one lab and stay there for at least a year. The experience is usually richer than if you hop between labs. Third, take advantage of all that UCI has to offer in the way of funding: honorary programs like Excellence in Research, the annual UCI Undergraduate Research Symposium, the summer stipend (SURP) and the academic year grants from UROP. The best resource is either your academic department or the UROP office. Lastly, share the wealth! Get your friends involved in research-perhaps work in the same lab if that can be arranged-but encourage everyone to consider doing research; not only does it build your character as a leader, but ultimately you do a service to science.

Past Researchers of the Month
2004
Dec. '04 Martin Vega
Nov. '04 Peter Kuo
Oct. '04 Michelle Plyer
Sep. '04 Camille Campion
Aug. '04 Ahmed Ibrahim
Jul. '04 Gregoria Barazandeh
Jun. '04 Matthew Korn
May '04 Jolene Minakary
Apr. '04 Zhanna Kovaleva
Mar. '04 Dorothy Chang
Feb. '04 Elizabeth Yanni
Jan. '04 Brad Cohn
  
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