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Yona Lei Named Recipient of the 2019 Norma Slepecky Undergraduate Research Prize
Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) has announced that Yongna (Yona) Lei, a senior majoring in biochemistry and minoring in philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences, is the recipient of the 2019 Norma Slepecky Undergraduate Research Prize.
Norma Slepecky was a passionate professor, researcher and advocate for undergraduate student research at Syracuse University. She also supported efforts to increase the number of women in science and engineering. Similar to Slepecky, WiSE programs support the persistence and excellence of women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The Slepecky Undergraduate Research Prize is meant to aid young women in STEM who have shown persistence toward degree completion, resilience, advancement and research excellence.
Lei is a University Scholar, a Remembrance Scholar and a member of the Renée Crown University Honors Program. She is currently researching Ubiquilin-2 (UBQLN2), a protein associated with the pathology of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
“Imagine you have UBQLN2 solution in a tube, which looks clear just like water. Now if you add salt to it and warm it up with your hand, you will see that the solution turns from clear to cloudy. The cloudiness or turbidity tells you that liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS) has occurred,” Lei says. “It’s interesting because something that sounds so microscopic can be observed by eye, and this process may occur similarly in our cells.”
Lei did not have research experience before beginning her independent study and research in the laboratory of Carlos A. Castañeda, assistant professor of biology and chemistry. “Dr. Castañeda gave me a chance,” Lei says of her research mentor.
In his recommendation, Castañeda said how fortunate he has been to have hosted Lei in his lab over the past two years and to watch her excel in her research.
Lei also speaks highly of her other mentor, Thuy Dao, a postdoctoral fellow in the Castañeda Lab. Dao acted as a sounding board, fostering Lei’s curiosity offering her day-to-day support.
Lei says she is very fortunate to be part of the Castañeda family, where she had tremendous support from mentors in colleagues in her journey as an undergraduate woman in a STEM field.
After graduation on May 12, Lei plans to stay in Syracuse to finish her research on UBQLN2. And she intends to apply for M.D./Ph.D. programs in cell biology, neuroscience and molecular genetics. She now adds her name to the list of 33 women awardees of the Norma Slepecky Undergraduate Research Prize.
About Women in Science and Engineering
WiSE, part of the Office of Academic Affairs, was founded in 1999 with three key goals: increase representation and retention, highlight women scholars through a lecture series, and develop advising/mentoring programs. As an interdisciplinary organization with a strong grassroots constituency in women faculty in STEM, the program has grown considerably over the years. Its distinguishing feature is that it is faculty led and driven. WiSE’s mission remains to support the persistence and excellence of women in STEM by capitalizing on their unique strengths; maximizing opportunities to connect; and addressing challenges experienced by women undergraduates, graduates, postdoctoral fellows and faculty in STEM.
About the Norma Slepecky Undergraduate Research Prize and Memorial Lecture
Norma Slepecky was a distinguished auditory neuroanatomist and member of the Institute for Sensory Research at Syracuse University. Slepecky was a passionate researcher and an advocate for undergraduate student research. She frequently mentored undergraduate students seeking research experience. She also strongly supported efforts to increase the number of women in science and engineering and hoped that her legacy, with the support of the endowment, would continue to encourage young women to conduct research. With her enthusiastic approval, her family, friends and colleagues upon her passing in 2001 endowed the Norma Slepecky Memorial Lectureship and Undergraduate Research Prize.
This story was written by Newhouse School graduate student Janet Diane White