Undergraduate Student Spotlight

Irene Franco 

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Major

Tell us about yourself!  

I’m Irene, a fourth year student studying Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. I am originally from Los Angeles, but living in Santa Cruz has brought a welcome change of pace to my life. Besides the sciences, I enjoy studying art history as well as creating art myself. When it comes to outdoor activities, I am a fan of stand-up paddle boarding and love to explore and hike the areas surrounding the UCSC campus.

Tell us a bit about your undergraduate STEM experience.

You were nominated partially due to your being awarded the  Undergraduate Research in Science & Technology Award in Spring 2021. You should be proud! Tell us more about it (what led to your earning that award, what you plan to do with the award, etc.).

The highlight of my STEM experience is undoubtedly joining the Millhauser Lab. Since my second year, I have been provided support and mentorship from my PI, Glenn Millhauser, and the lab members. I was so excited to get hands-on experience in a real research lab. As I gained more skills and understanding of the techniques we use in this lab, I went from a research assistant to a researcher in my own right. I developed a project idea and conducted my research through the Undergraduate Research in Science & Technology Award. Under the guidance of my current Ph.D. student mentor Fran Pavlovici, I was able to formulate the methods and goals of the project and was chosen to receive the award in Spring 2021. I quickly got to work utilizing the awarded funds during Summer 2021. This project involves crystallizing the prion protein, which turns out to be quite finicky, but my goal is to gain new insights into its interactions with the amyloid beta peptide through X-ray diffraction. Overall I am very grateful for the research experiences that the Millhauser Lab, the Division of Physical and Biological Sciences, and its donors have provided me.

What inspired you to pursue an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology? 

Coming into the university, I knew I wanted to study biology and life in some form, but I was unsure of which major to choose. I explored the Environmental Studies, Environmental Science, and MCD Biology majors before proposing. What I found is that the scale of Biochemistry is the most intuitive and interesting to me. Instead of the planet or biome-wide systems of Environmental Science, or the smaller systems that make up organisms in MCD Biology, I prefer learning about and studying life at the biomolecular level. I am likely biased due to my membership in the Millhauser Lab, but I find structural biology fascinating. It is also helpful that the fundamental concepts I learned in my study of biochemistry are endlessly applicable in the massive field of biotechnology.

What are your goals/plans for the future? 

After graduation, I want to take a little break from my education and start my career in the biotech industry, perhaps in food science! Afterwards, I would like to pursue a Masters in Biochemistry to further build on and specialize my knowledge. What happens beyond this depends on the opportunities and interests I discover along the way.

 Irene Franco - Fall 2021 Student Spotlight

Ana Paula Kitos Vasconcelos

Chemistry BS with Biochemistry Concentration Major

Tell us about yourself!
My name is Ana Paula and I am a 5th year senior studying Chemistry with a concentration in biochemistry. I was born in Australia to Brazilian and Canadian parents and I grew up in the Bay Area. In my free time I enjoy doing acrobatics and aerial art, foraging wild mushrooms and playing music.
Tell us a bit about your undergraduate STEM experience – has there been a highlight? What have you overcome? What inspired you to pursue an undergraduate degree in Chemistry?
I am so happy that I chose to come to UCSC. I had the most amazing 5 years full of wonderful and passionate people and lots of opportunity to learn and grow as a person. At the beginning of my fourth year I was given the opportunity to be an organic chemistry lab teaching assistant, and since then I have TA'd both for that lab and Chem 8B. Teaching has been one of the highlights of my undergrad experience and I am so glad that I was given the opportunity to discover my passion and excitement for education! Shoutout to Caitlin Binder for seeing my potential and mentoring me as I began my teaching journey! Another highlight was doing undergraduate research in the Braslau lab! Rebecca has been an amazing advisor and I feel like I have grown so much as a chemist and researcher in her lab. Getting into research is daunting at first but I am so glad that I did and have had such a wonderful and supportive group to learn from.
I was faced with the challenge of always being a pretty mediocre student. I found science fascinating but I struggled a lot with math and doubted my ability to graduate college with a degree in the sciences. My freshman year I ended up not passing my first ever college chemistry class. It was a big wake up call that I had to change my strategy and after strengthening my knowledge of fundamental math and chemistry I ended up having a completely different (and much better) relationship with school.
What inspired you to pursue an undergraduate degree in Chemistry/what do you want to do with your degree?
I was originally an environmental studies and biology major, interested in studying the impacts of climate change on ecosystems. I found myself asking a lot of questions that were out of the scope of the material for those majors. I realized that those questions could be explained by learning more chemistry, so I decided to change my major. My driving force has always been around sustainability-related issues and I want to use my chemistry knowledge to help enhance sustainability in material synthesis.
What are your goals/plans for the future? 
I am starting a Chemistry PhD program at the University of Washington in the fall! So that’s my five year plan. After that, who knows!? I am interested in becoming a professor since it’s a wonderful combination of my passion for teaching and interest in research but only time will tell!
Ana Paula Kitos Vasconcelos - Student Spotlight Spring 2021


Sophia Hollow, Class of 2020-2021 

Chemistry BS with Environmental Chemistry Concentration Major

Tell us about yourself!
My name is Sophie Hollow and I graduated in March as a chemistry major with a concentration in environmental science. Some of my hobbies include camping, rock climbing, acro-yoga, and spending time with my rescue pup Roo. I grew up in San Diego and return often to spend time with my family.
Tell us a bit about your undergraduate STEM experience – has there been a highlight? What have you overcome? What inspired you to pursue an undergraduate degree in Chemistry?
I took a non-linear approach to my undergraduate career. I transferred schools twice for a total of almost eight years as an undergraduate, during which time I moved from general studies to engineering, then on to biology, before finally landing in chemistry. When I first entered the STEM field, I struggled with imposter syndrome and questioned my place in a largely male dominated field. 
Arriving at UCSC was a huge turning point for me. I had the benefit of taking classes instructed by unapologetically vibrant and inspiring women. Additionally, I joined the Johnstone lab in June of 2019, where my passion for inorganic chemistry took off. I owe thanks to every member of the lab, and our PI Timothy Johnstone, for helping me to develop the confidence necessary to succeed.
What are your goals/plans for the future? 
I look forward to graduate school and to pursue a PhD in inorganic chemistry here at UCSC. There was a point in my life where I felt ashamed for the unusual track I was on, and for the time it was taking to make my way through my undergraduate career. Now, I am thankful for every opportunity to be a student, and to continue to learn and grow. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is that there is no one “right track”.
Sophia Hollow - Student Spotlight Spring 2021

Roberto Rivera, Class of 2020-2021 

Chemistry BS Major

Tell us about yourself!
My name is Roberto Rivera and I graduated in fall 2020 with a BS in Chemistry. Some of the hobbies that I love are cycling, hiking because I enjoy exploring new places. I also started playing pool while attending UCSC.
Tell us a bit about your undergraduate STEM experience – has there been a highlight? What have you overcome?
Performing research with my PI, Peter Weiss, was one of my highlights at UCSC. Being part of a research group was a great experience for me because I learned new analytical techniques, lab instruments, critical thinking skills, and I met some great researchers! I also believe that it made me more comfortable in the lab space since I had more freedom.
Because I attended a small high school that did not have many clubs or extracurricular activities, I did not have the opportunity to take on leadership positions. Coming into UCSC, I stepped out of my comfort zone and took on leadership positions in the UCSC Chemistry Club and other organizations. Taking these positions gave me new leadership skills and new challenges where I had an opportunity to learn more about myself.
What inspired you to pursue an undergraduate degree in Chemistry/what do you want to do with your degree?
I pursued an undergraduate degree in chemistry because of how much I enjoyed it during high school. I also knew I wanted to use chemistry to make a positive impact in society and I had a few career ideas when I began my undergraduate studies. Because chemistry is applied in many fields, I knew I would be able to direct my focus on either career option.
What are your goals/plans for the future? 
Now that I have graduated from UCSC, I will now be pursuing my Ph.D. and studying materials used in batteries to improve their performance and sustainability. I believe that furthering the technology in batteries is important because they have great potential in reducing the usage of fossil fuels since they can be used to store renewable energy and improved batteries could increase the usage of electric vehicles. 
photo of Roberto Rivera

Josh Marquez, Class of 2022

Chemistry BS with Biochemistry concentration Major

Start by introducing yourself!

My name is Josh Marquez and I’m a fourth year Chemistry major with a concentration in Biochemistry. I am the first openly gay member of my Mexican-American family as well as the first to pursue a degree in STEM. Like any UCSC student I enjoy hiking, music, photography, and film.

Tell us a bit about your undergraduate STEM experience – has there been a highlight? What have you overcome?

As an intersectional minority in STEM, my journey hasn’t always been easy but it has been worth it! Initially, I struggled with impostor syndrome, finances, and finding my community within the realm of science, however, after joining STEM Diversity in the Spring of 2020 and later beginning work in the McKinnie lab I have been met with nothing but support and open arms.

I’m sure everyone can agree that 2020 wasn’t the easiest year for students. Each of us were met with our own trials and tribulations that pushed us to our limits and showed us the true definition of persistence. I personally was evacuated several times from Santa Cruz this year due to the onset of the pandemic, wildfires, and finally after my grandfather passed away from COVID related complications on his 71st birthday. Despite these hurdles, I returned time and time again, determined to persevere through my degree and research project.

What inspired you to pursue an undergraduate degree in Chemistry?

My decision to pursue a degree in chemistry started in high school, though my passion for the subject didn’t fully bloom until I enrolled in organic chemistry my sophomore year at UCSC. After discovering the versatility and practicality of the field I fell in love with the subject and became determined to pursue this discipline to its fullest extent by enrolling in a doctoral program for natural products synthesis and bioorganic chemistry. 

What are your goals/plans for the future?

My main goal for the future is to participate in a graduate program to advance the fringes of science while simultaneously advocating for and mentoring underrepresented students that are eager to enter this field of work. Ultimately I hope to teach at the university level and create a program designed to encourage minority participation in STEM.  

Josh Marquez - Student Spotlight Winter 2021

Allison Browne, Class of 2020 

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Major

Tell us a bit about your undergraduate experience – has there been a highlight?

I have grown and learned a lot over the course of my four years here and am grateful for everyone who has supported me along the way. A highlight of my undergraduate experience was realizing that I really enjoyed the major that I had chosen kind of on a whim and want to pursue biochemistry as a professional career.

What has your experience been like as a woman in STEM? (What have you overcome? Highlights?)

A lot of my friends are also STEM majors and successful in their respective fields which is so encouraging to me to be surrounded by incredible and supportive women lifting each other up.

What inspired you to pursue an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry?

I was a proposed Biology major but soon discovered that I loved chemistry as well and was able to learn about the best of both through Biochemistry. Also after taking the biochemistry series, I realized that I really enjoyed the content and was inspired by my professors and the research they are conducting into DNA and proteins.

Have you faced any challenges being a female in STEM? If so, what were they and how did you overcome them?

Being a mixed race women in STEM I have struggled with Imposter Syndrome, but I have been so fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of ambitious women and people of color and first generation students overcoming obstacles of their own to earn their education and have been so inspired by their journeys and their support. Also I have looked up to my female professors who have been amazing role models for me, showing me what is possible with hard work and passion for the subject.

Do you have any words of advice for other students who may be interested in pursuing this sort of research/major?

A word of advice would be to find a good group of people to study who are also interested in the same things or who are in your major because you will have classes with them all four years. Also take full advantage of the resources available to you like ACE, MSI, and make connections with TAs and professors through office hours because they do really want to help you out. Also get involved! I was part of Crown Student Senate and the Random with a Purpose dance showcase which both gave me a chance to meet so many wonderful people I wouldn't have met otherwise.

What are your goals/plans for the future?

I am planning to take a year off from school after graduating to pursue a job in biotechnology and later potentially a Masters in Pharmaceutical Chemistry after gaining industry experience.


Kareem Bdeir, Class of 2020 

Chemistry BS with Biochemistry concentration Major

My name is Kareem Bdeir and I am a graduating senior majoring in Chemistry with a concentration in Biochemistry. I am a Palestinian American born in San Francisco, CA. Some of my hobbies include cooking and growing and caring for plants.

It’s hard coming up with a defining moment in my undergraduate experience because it has been a journey since day one. I started at UCSC as a Biology major but quickly switched to Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and then eventually to Chemistry with the concentration. It was somewhat unexpected how my undergraduate career managed to shape itself around what I liked. I gained inspiration from great professors and they unknowingly helped me realize that I want to teach chemistry.

Being a first generation student in STEM proved to be as difficult as people said it would be. The rigor of my classes paired with the pressure from my family has made these past four years difficult. Something that I learned about myself, however, is that I strive under pressure.

My current plan is to apply for a graduate program at the end of next year. I will work in research until my program begins in 2021.



Shaneen Britton Acevedo, Class of 2020 

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Major

Tell us a bit about your undergraduate experience – has there been a highlight?

I began college as a Bioengineering major, however, it did not take long for me to realize I loved the chemistry and biology classes more than all others. So I changed my major and became a Biochemistry & Molecular Biology B.S. major. It is still one of the best choices I’ve made. Other great decisions I’ve made in college are to tutor for the classes I had already taken, the material becomes so much clearer when you teach it, so I would encourage everyone to try it.  

What has your experience been like as a woman in STEM? (Highlights?)

As a Latina immigrant in STEM, having community has always been crucial for me. Here in Santa Cruz, I am surrounded by supportive people as a part of the EOP, ACE and the MSI community. In my research lab, UC LEADS and the STEM Diversity community, I am continuously encouraged and challenged. Being a part of these communities at UCSC has been a blessing, and I would say they are all the highlights of my experience here as a student. As a minority woman in STEM it was definitely a challenge to pursue a degree where you are not the norm, but having these communities strengthened me to pursue my goals.

What are your goals/plans for the future? 

Doing research in the Millhauser Lab opened my eyes to a career path I was unaware of before university. Now my plans for the future are to pursue a Ph.D. in Chemical Biology and continue to practice science beyond that."