Undergraduate Researcher Profile: Eric Curiel-Lares

Eric Curiel-Lares transferred to UCSC from the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA in 2011. He became interested in research after participating in ecological field studies with his biology instructor, Robert Hansen.  After attending two conferences in 2010, the Western Section of the the Wildlife Society Conference and the Society of Chicanos/Latinos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) National Conference, and talking to students and professors doing research, he decided to transfer to a research-based university. He was recently quoted in a Science Careers article on the importance of undergraduate organizations like SACNAS and the benefits of attending conferences with other students. “You come back super-charged...Students are able to see other students who have similar backgrounds and goals.” 

Currently, Eric participates in the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD) Program, one of the STEM Diversity programs at UCSC, and the Research Mentoring Institute (RMI). IMSD "provides participating students with the opportunity to receive an in-depth experience in the academic and experimental aspects of biological research. Funded through the National Institutes of Health, the program consists of a laboratory-training program during the summer and laboratory research projects during the academic year" (UCSC IMSD website). RMI is offered by the "Center for Biomolecular Science & Engineering (CBSE) at UCSC for outstanding undergraduate and graduate students—from any discipline—interested in pursuing research projects in areas relevant to the human genome, including the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of genome research." Eric is majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and expects to graduate in 2014.

How do you define undergraduate research?

Undergraduate research is an opportunity to learn beyond the classroom because you are at the frontier of research. Since you study questions that have never been answered before, you are able to make new discoveries.

What project and lab/research group do you work with?

For the first two years at UCSC, Eric studied how climate change affects lizards and amphibians with Professor Barry Sinervo. He worked on a project that investigated if the absence of northern alligator lizards at certain sites in the Monterey Bay area was due to decreased fog frequency.  Part of his work included collecting  temperature and water loss data to model the influence of climate factors on amphibians geographical distribution in California.  In the summer of 2013, he began working with Professor Grant Pogson to study the evolution of genes associated with the immune system of sea urchins. He studied the diversity of paralogs among sea urchins and tested single copy genes for positive selection.

What was the lab or research group’s culture like?

The lab culture was great in the Sinervo Lab...I was given independence on my project, but support was always available when I needed it. In the Pogson lab, I have gained constant guidance and feedback on my project.

Did the group have regular meetings?  Did you attend?  If so, were they helpful?  Did you present?

Our lab did have weekly lab meetings, in which we discussed papers that were most relevant to what people in the lab (were) studying. We usually alternated in choosing a paper, but we had a group discussion rather than having one person present.

How did research help you academically?

Research has helped me academically by providing me (with) the perspective of the researcher. Now I have a better understanding of why certain studies were conducted. I have also been able to integrate what I have learned from my classes into my research.

What have you learned from this process?

I have learned that you always need to be able to improvise. Sometimes it seems that no matter how well you think you prepare, some things will not go according to your original plan. Being able to improvise has saved me from a lot of headaches. Since you..study something new, you become the expert of your study. This is really exciting and is one of the reasons why I enjoy doing research.

Who has been the most important mentor for you, and why?

So far the most important mentors for me have been Robert Hansen, Barry Sinervo, and Grant Pogson. Robert Hansen was my biology teacher at community college and taught me a lot about how to be a good field researcher. Barry Sinervo and Grant Pogson have offered my the opportunity to do research in their respective labs. Barry Sinervo taught how to setup field experiments. Grant Pogson has taught me how to effectively analyze data. Under their mentorship, I have grown as a scientist, learned how to search the scientific literature and write about my research.

What has been the most challenging aspect of doing undergraduate research?

The most challenging aspect of doing research for me has been time management. Although spending a lot of time in lab may help you get good results, it also could negatively affect your grades. It is important to find the balance between class work and lab.

What advice would you give students interested in undergraduate research?

...Keep an open mind about research topics. You don’t have to do research in the particular department in which you are studying. Being versatile could benefit you. You should also use resources available on campus, such as the STEM Diversity Programs, ...(and) talk to other students doing research.

Compiled by Rebecca Anderson
Photo credit: Hector Ramirez

September, 2013