APU Undergrad Wins Prestigious Microbiology Fellowship

by Nathan Foster

Hannah Valencia ’20 sits in a lab room in the Segerstrom Science Center hunched over a flow cytometer, searching intently. She is getting paid to do something she loves—research. Valencia, a junior biology and honors humanities double major, was recently awarded a research fellowship from the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), enabling her to continue her research on “Determining the effects of Aspergillus sclerotiorum [a fungal species] on cell cycle progression in Drosophila [fruit fly] cells.” This prestigious fellowship provides Valencia with 10 weeks of funding over the summer. She will present her findings at the ASM Microbe conference next year in Chicago.

Valencia is the first APU student to receive this fellowship. She applied under the guidance of her principal investigator, Sarah Richart, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry. “This fellowship is very competitive. It’s a huge opportunity for Hannah. It speaks highly of her and of our department at APU,” Richart said. In addition to presenting at the conference next year, Valencia will attend an academy hosted by the ASM where she will learn about graduate schools and receive career advice from professionals in the industry.

“I was really shocked when I heard I got it,” Valencia said. “It was so unexpected but it made me really happy. It felt like all of my work was starting to pay off.” Valencia began her research on this topic last summer. She chose this subject because Richart’s group previously showed for the first time that a fungal strain could cause disease in termites and fruit flies. Valencia asked to work on a project determining how the fungus affects cell growth in fruit flies. “The sky’s the limit in terms of research projects,” Richart said about this particular area of research. “I help them get started, but they have freedom in how the experiment is designed and how they’ll test their hypotheses.”

Valencia’s project is testing the hypothesis that this fungus would disrupt the cell cycle in insects. She uses a machine called a flow cytometer, which allows her to examine the components of individual cells. She labels nucleotides and measures fluorescence to determine cell growth. While this process might seem bewildering to most, Valencia looks forward to going to the lab each day. “Last summer, I would crank out eight-hour days in the lab. I was often the first in and the last to leave. The work was so captivating,” she said. Although she had a lot of fun, her work was often challenging. She had just completed her sophomore year and lacked lab experience. “I didn’t have a lot of upper division science classes under my belt. I still had much to learn. There was plenty of trial and error,” she said. “The process took longer than it should have, but the end result was gratifying.”

Richart guided Valencia through her research, but left some distance so she could learn on her own. When Valencia had a question, Richart encouraged her to use her resources and seek the answer herself. “That made it hard at first, but I really appreciate it now,” Valencia said. “I’ve integrated that mindset into other classes and it has really helped me improve as a student.”

Richart said the opportunity to do research as an undergraduate student is rare. In many universities, research positions are primarily available only for graduate and doctoral students. “That’s one of our distinct advantages,” she said. “When I did undergrad at a state school, I competed with 500 other students for 10 research spots. Hannah has the luxury to not go through that and get lots of experience in undergrad. That’s huge for her when she applies for grad school and for her career.”

Valencia is not sure what her future holds. For now, she focuses on her present scholarly opportunities. The Glendora High School graduate returns home from the lab each night and enjoys simply relaxing with her family. “Being a commuter, it’s nice to separate work life and home life. I love having home-cooked meals and just talking with my dad about my day,” she said. Valencia didn’t originally plan on attending APU, but she said she is very happy she’s here. “APU has been a really rewarding experience. The environment is enriching and all my professors are supportive. Research here has allowed me to grow in so many ways I never imagined.”

Nathan is a public relations intern in the Office of University Relations. He is a double major in journalism and public relations.