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MARC-WSU Scholars: 2022-24 Cohort

Katy Ayers, member of the 2022-24 cohort of MARC-WSU student scholars.

Katy Ayers

Hometown: Kearney, Nebraska

Majors: Dual Degrees in Bioengineering and Biochemistry
Minor: Mathematics

Future career goals: I will attain Ph.D. in mycology (the study of fungi) and engineering to help build societal connections to nature through engineering and education.

Why I joined MARC-WSU: I joined the MARC-WSU program to help me achieve my future goals as well as for the additional support and accountability. I am a first-generation, non-traditional student from a rural background. With this program I will be able to focus on my education and research instead of holding three jobs. I look forward to working with other student who share my curiosity and drive for knowledge.

Research activities: Currently, I am looking into the application of fungal mycelium to native solitary pollinator habitats. I grow bee hotels from a fungus and fondly refer to them as MycHotels. These bee hotels offer nesting habitat to solitary pollinators which may pollinate up to 80% of our native plants. While many individuals are aware of honeybee decline, our native pollinator populations are dwindling at an equally alarming rate. I will deploy the MycHotels in the Spring of 2023 alongside traditional wooden bee hotels to act as a control. I will then calculate the number of species in each type of bee hotel. Next, I will measure the viral load in a random sample from each hotel. This will allow me to see if MycHotels have a medicinal benefit for pollinators. MycHotels are a sustainable solution to solitary pollinator habitat loss and can be used as a soil amendment after use. If my research supports my hypothesis that MycHotels are a medicinal, sustainable, nesting habitat that facilitate conservation of native solitary pollinators, MycHotels could be scaled up for any size farm.

Fun fact: I hold the Guinness’ World Record for the world’s largest fungal mycelium canoe at 2.3 meters long. I named my creation the Myconoe; it is still alive and grows mushrooms after being on the water.

Ximena Herrera, member of the 2022-24 cohort of MARC-WSU student scholars.

Ximena Herrera

Hometown: Spokane and Spokane Valley, Washington

Ethnicity or heritage: Mexican/Hispanic, with both sides of my family descending from Mexico.

Major: Neuroscience
Minor: Biology

Future career goals: Earn a M.D/Ph. D In Neuroscience

Why I joined MARC-WSU: I joined the MARC-WSU program because it would help me achieve my goal of expanding my research opportunities by offering seminars and presentations and providing me with the skills needed to apply to higher institutions. It allows me to interact with students and mentors who share the same ambitions. As a first-generation student, it helped me carve out a path toward an M.D/Ph.D. It supports my goal to work in the healthcare field and become a doctor to help others along the way, especially those that share the same background as me. As part of the program, I was able to grow and continue my research on campus, and I was supported along the way.

Research activities: I have been a part of Dr. Henrick’s lab since August 2021, in which we study the neurobiological underpinnings of substance use disorder when understanding behavior and addiction development in both genders. As we focus on characterizing sex differences using rodent models to understand the neurobiological mechanisms of addiction. The goal is to enhance our preclinical findings in clinical populations to advance the therapies of substance use disorders and mental illness in men and women.

Interesting fact: I love animals. I now have two tabby cats named Valentina and Cariño. They are my pride and joy after class. In my spare time, I enjoy hiking, baking, or spending time with friends and family.

Eliza Johnson, member of the 2022-24 cohort of MARC-WSU student scholars.

Elisa Johnson

Hometown: Spokane and Spokane Valley, Washington

Ethnicity or heritage: My maternal grandfather was Assyrian Iranian and the rest of my family are descendants of mostly Irish, English, and Scandinavian immigrants.

Major: Genetics and Molecular Biology

Future career goals: With a Ph.D. in a biomedical research field I will lead research related to enhancing cell products for a changing world.

Why I joined MARC-WSU: Approaching a graduate degree is intimidating. With the guidance and support of the MARC program I can remain on track toward my dream career with confidence.

Research activities: I want to understand and expand the possibilities of genetic engineering and synthetic biology. Whether it is increasing the efficiency of gut microbiomes, making changes that confer higher survivability in changing climate, or improving innate immunity and immune responses, there are many improvements to be made now that scientists and artificial intelligence have enabled, such as gene sequencing, targeting, and mapping like never before.

Fun fact: Before returning to school to study biology I spent the last 10+ years writing, performing, and producing music. I’ve released two albums, written close to 60 songs, and performed live over 100 times.

Sophie Shirali, member of the 2022-24 cohort of MARC-WSU student scholars.

Sophie Kate Shirali

Hometown: Bellevue, Washington

Ethnicity or heritage: Mixed (Colombian and Persian)

Major: Neuroscience

Future career goals: Earn a M.D./Ph.D. in Neuroscience

Why I joined MARC-WSU: As a first-generation student and a lifelong learner, I am very grateful for the guidance and support the MARC-WSU program will provide me. The opportunity to experience different labs and learn a multitude of research skills, have access to numerous mentors within my field of interest, and take part in courses that will enrich and nurture my skills and passion for neuroscience research are just some of the ways that MARC-WSU will have a profound positive impact on my growth as a scientist as well as my future career endeavors.

Research activities: I have been a part of Dr. Travis Brown’s lab since August 2021 researching the effects of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) on the degradation of structures in the prefrontal cortex known as perineuronal nets to understand the role MMPs play in causing diet-induced obesity. This will hopefully lead to future work in utilizing gene silencing techniques to develop novel treatments to diet-induced obesity and its subsequent implications.

Fun fact: I love to run; I have previously run a half-marathon!

Inaugural 2021-23 Cohort

Alexandra Malena, member of the 2021-23 cohort of MARC-WSU student scholars.

Alexandra Malena

Hometown: Hawthorne, California

Ethnicity or heritage: Mexican and Argentinian

Majors: Neuroscience and Psychology
Minor: Sociology

Future career goals: Earn a Ph.D. in Neuroscience

Why I joined MARC-WSU: As a first-generation student, having the opportunity to partake in research skills courses, professional development workshops, and mentoring will provide me with the support needed to be successful in pursuing a doctorate degree. Being a part of the MARC-WSU program will help me achieve my aspirations of researching and making an impact in the field of Alzheimer’s disease at a higher education level by providing the resources and opportunities to get into a graduate program.

Research activities: I have been a part of Dr. McLaughlin’s lab since January 2020 and have been researching the effects of maternal cannabis use on offspring anxiety-like behavior in rats. I will be starting a research project to assess whether rats will lever press for cannabis vapor rewards.

Fun fact: I ran the Los Angeles Marathon when I was 18.

Kalli Stephens, member of the 2021-23 cohort of MARC-WSU student scholars.

Kalli Stephens

Hometown: I grew up in a rural town in Southern Utah and come from a large, multiracial family.

Ethnicity or heritage: I learned the importance of my Chinese and Native Hawaiian heritage through traditions such as celebrating Chinese New Year, and hula dancing at family luaus.

Majors: Microbiology/Molecular Biology

Future career goals: Earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience

Why I joined MARC-WSU: As a non-traditional college student, I appreciate the financial assistance offered by MARC because it allowed me to stop working part time to focus on school and research. Additionally, the mentorship and research opportunities the program offers are invaluable as I prepare for and apply to graduate school.

Research activities: After moving to Pullman in 2015, I worked at a reproductive health clinic. This experience gave me a passion for reproductive health, and I decided to go to college in pursuit of a career in reproductive biology. Since enrolling at WSU, I have been involved in reproductive biology research and plan to pursue a Ph.D. after graduating.

Interesting facts: After high school I attended culinary school and worked in bread and pastry. Although I enjoy baking and still bake in my spare time, after a few years I decided to change fields.

Natasha Puzon, member of the 2021-23 cohort of MARC-WSU student scholars.

Natasha Puzon

Hometown: I grew up in a small town south of Seattle, Washington called Enumclaw

Ethnicity or heritage: Puerto Rican on my mom’s side

Majors: Microbiology and Cell Biology/Genetics

Future career goals: I want to get my Ph.D. in infectious disease, though I have not decided if I want to focus on bacterial infections or virus caused diseases yet.

Why I joined MARC-WSU: I am extremely excited to become a part of the MARC program and cannot wait to see where it takes me!

Research activities: I am a member of both the Honors College and the STARS program here at WSU.

Interesting facts: I love animals and have a dog named Isi and a cat named Rosie. My favorite things to do in my spare time are running, swimming, hiking, camping and watching documentaries.

Tyrus Adrian Thomas, member of the 2021-23 cohort of MARC-WSU student scholars.

Tyrus Adrian Thomas

Hometown: Pullman, Washington

Ethnicity or heritage: Mixed (White & Black)

Majors: Microbiology

Future career goals: Earn my B.S. and Ph.D. in microbiology

Why I joined MARC-WSU: When I heard about the MARC program, I was interested in applying because I enjoy doing research. I have had some experience working in a lab. Gaining more knowledge and skills while meeting new people and having a mentor will prepare me for grad school.

Research interests: I want to research bacteria because they are fascinating, and I am interested in how they become resistant to antibiotics. Also interested in other microbes, not just bacteria, such as bacteriophages.

Interesting facts: I’m in track & field at WSU in the 110m hurdles. I’ve also done wildland firefighting.