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Training Puts Students on Research Trajectory

During the month of July, more than a dozen students put their newly acquired skills to the test, conducting original research ranging from studies on the water quality of coastal environments to the hierarchy of animal behavior and the spread of bacteria, as part of the intensive three-week Summer Research Training program at CSUSM.“The program offers students their first introduction to life as a practicing scientist,” explained Dr. Keith Trujillo, director of the Office for Training, Research and Education in the Sciences (OTRES), which hosts the annual Summer Research Training program. “Students finish the training well prepared to begin work with a faculty member that can launch them into graduate school and a doctoral-level career in research.”For many students, the experience was the first time they had conducted research independently. Each participant was responsible for designing their own study, formulating hypotheses, gathering data, analyzing results and presenting their findings.Most of the projects examined bacteria, like that of recent MiraCosta transfer student Aurelio Arango, who explored the efficacy of homemade saltwater mouthwash, a trend that has grown in popularity as more consumers move away from products that may contain dangerous chemicals.Nyeesha Hale, a senior majoring in psychology, took a different approach. Hale conducted her study on the behavior of termites, comparing the activity of worker and soldier termites after a nest disturbance.“OTRES teaches you how to think like a scientist,” said Gabriel Padilla, a junior biology student who recently transferred to CSUSM from Palomar College. “After just three weeks I feel as though I’ve gained a semester’s worth of knowledge and practical experience.”An avid surfer, Padilla chose to compare bacteria levels in different coastal environments. He was particularly interested in analyzing the water quality of the San Elijo river mouth, near one of his favorite surf spots. “OTRES was the deciding factor that brought me to CSUSM,” Padilla noted. “I already feel so connected to the campus and to my faculty.”Formerly known as the Office for Biomedical Research and Training (OBRT), OTRES sponsors programs that focus on science education and research. Each of its programs aims to support students in their pursuit of a Ph.D. or a research career in the natural or behavioral sciences. Among the center’s programs is Bridges, a collaborative partnership that prepares underrepresented students from Palomar and MiraCosta colleges for university-level research.It was Padilla’s participation in Bridges that initially piqued his interest in Cal State San Marcos, he said. In the spring while finishing his associate’s degree at Palomar, Padilla shadowed student researchers in Professor Deborah Kristan’s lab at CSUSM. This fall he will conduct research on parasitism in that same lab as a RISE (Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement) scholar, an OTRES program which provides scholarships and research opportunities for students interested in graduate school.“Gabe’s story very nicely illustrates how our programs offer a solid pipeline for students interested in research careers, beginning at Palomar or MiraCosta, and continuing at CSUSM,” added Trujillo.Recent CSUSM biological sciences graduate and Summer Research Training program mentor Andrew Cooper can attest to that trajectory. Four years ago he participated in the Summer Research Training program as a sophomore.Beyond learning the ropes, he said the experience instills confidence in novice researchers as they become more familiar and comfortable working in a laboratory.“The program really helped prepare me and give me a glimpse into the rigors of science,” said Cooper, who remembers conducting his first study on the effectiveness and validity of household cleaners that claim to kill 99.9 percent of harmful bacteria. “The training served as a foundation for my research that followed.”While an undergraduate, Cooper worked with Professor Matt Escobar and examined plant cell biology and the effects of nitrogen sources. He coauthored a publication in the journal Plant, Cell and Environment in 2010 and later earned the recognition as a finalist in the 2011 campus-wide Student Research Competition. He was both a RISE and MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers) scholar, another OTRES program. After being accepted into three top doctoral programs, Cooper has decided to attend University of California, San Diego this fall where he will begin his Ph.D. in biology.For more information about available research and training opportunities, visit the Office for Training, Research and Education in the Sciences.