Illinois celebrates Undergraduate Research Week

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is where “revolutionary research happens.” The university has been breaking ground on new research since 1867, leading it to become one of the top public research institutions in the world. Diving into research has led many students to be a part of innovative experiences. Research at Illinois makes an impact within our community and worldwide. 

This week, April 26 through May 2, is Undergraduate Research Week at Illinois. This week showcases some of the top undergraduate research and innovations taking place at the university. Many students highlight some of their best work and what they have accomplished during the school year. Also, workshops show undergrads how to get involved in research and more to spotlight all of our students’ successes. The Undergraduate Research Symposium will also be held this week. During the symposium, students from all disciplines within Illinois will present, which brings awareness to important issues and problems of our time. If you are interested in learning about undergraduate research or you want to view all of the amazing work done by your peers, tune into UG Research Week and the UG Research Symposium. This year’s event can be found on the Undergraduate Research website

Several College of LAS students have shared with us their undergraduate research experiences that have led them to areas of study within their interests. 

Ariana Daneshbodi
Ariana is a senior majoring in psychology and communication. She became interested in UG research, because she felt it was a great way to gain hands-on experience in any field. Students participating in research experience concepts/topics beyond the classroom environment, which is something she’s found employers and graduate/professional programs value. Ariana says it was a great way to boost her resume and gain new skills that made her stand out as she prepared for graduate school. Currently, she is involved in both cognitive psychology and social psychology research. She has spent her time in three labs. One of her labs focuses on memory while another focuses on morality and social cognition. To get into this research, she reached out to her professors through email during her freshman year. She expressed her interest in the work that they do, explained her intentions to pursue a graduate education, and asked them to consider her for any research assistant position that was available. Ariana said it was important to build connections with her professors after class and during office hours, because it helped her land a position in their labs. She believes being involved in UG research has helped her get into her PhD program. Through her research, she has gained a valuable new skill set while networking and building with others. 

Maaz Haji
Maaz is a sophomore majoring in molecular and cellular biology honors. He became interested in UG research because he’s always wanted to have hands-on lab experience with the thrill of discovery while knowing that his work was making a positive impact on the world. He is passionate about the “essence of genetics,” which has led him to immerse himself in genetics-based research. Maaz works in assistant professor Wenyan Mei’s lab in the Department of Comparative Biosciences at the College of Veterinary Medicine. Maaz has always taken interest in animals so being at the College of Vet. Med. only felt right to him. The lab he works in is researching the function of two genes, PTB and TLR4, and the role they play in the prognosis of colorectal cancer. Knowing how these genes work can help create “novel targets for gene therapy in patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer.” Their lab also helps determine the etiology of the disease.

When looking for research, Maaz first made a list including each professor who was involved in genetics/gene regulation research within MCB and Vet. Med. From there, he was able to make a list to narrow down his decision on what lab he wanted to join. After narrowing his list, Maaz emailed professors asking to join their labs. He was able to eventually join a lab that valued his work. Being involved in undergraduate research has helped him to expand his horizons and explore his true interests and passions. 

Sarah Matatov
Sarah is a sophomore in biochemistry and psychology. She became interested in research because she enjoys seeing how the world works. Sarah says that she always jokes with her friends and family that "(she) wishes that (she) was immortal so (she) could learn all there is about life and the universe.” Sarah wants to know how humans work, “from the small building blocks like DNA to huge theoretical concepts like consciousness and dreams.” Research gives her the chances to discover and create knowledge that future students will learn in their classes.

Sarah got her start in research in her junior year of high school through ResearcHStart program. Last summer, she was fortunate to work in professor Rex Gaskin’s lab in the Department of Animal Sciences under graduate student Patricia Wolf. In this lab, the research was focused on the effects that the microbiome has on colorectal cancer. After a while, she realized she wanted to do more biochemistry focused research, and that is when she reached out to associate professor Auinash Kalsotra.

Sarah’s primary research role is as an undergraduate research assistant and a 2020 Jenner Family Summer Fellow in Kalsotra’s lab. The lab is focused on Myotonic Dystrophy type 1 (DM1), which is the most prevalent adult onset muscular dystrophy, she explained about her work under Chaitali Misra. 

In the spring of 2019, Sarah took a cognitive psychology class (PSYC 224) when she began asking questions and sharing the many ideas that came to mind while in class. She felt like professor Kara Federmeier took her ideas seriously. Sarah decided to take PSYC 450, and, as she grew interested in the material being presented, she joined Federmeier’s research lab. 

As an undergraduate research assistant in Federmeier’s lab, Sarah describes the work as focused on measuring naturally occurring brain electrical activity (EEG) to characterize how the brain works while people perform language and memory tasks. In particular, she is working under graduate student Emily Mech to study language potentials elicited when a predicted word fits with either the local or global context of a sentence.

The research that Sarah is doing now has a direct correlation to the type of research she hopes to do in the future. Because of this, she hopes to spend her career studying therapies for neurodegenerative disorders in collaboration with patients and teaching at a research-based university. Her passion for research and the brain has deepened overtime with new research opportunities. Sarah’s experiences have allowed her to further explore different areas of research and diversify her research skills. 

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Amber Redmond