Introducing the ten Illinois undergrads selected as 2023 Mayo Clinic Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows

5/1/2023 6:22:39 AM Hannah Wirth

Every year, Mayo Clinic hosts approximately 180 undergraduates from across the nation to participate in their Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. Sponsored by the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, this 10-week program provides undergraduates the opportunity to work at the forefront of biomedical research at one of the world’s leading medical centers. Students conduct research in the laboratories of Mayo Clinic faculty on small projects or as part of ongoing investigations, attend weekly seminars, and test their inclinations toward a career in biomedical research.

As part of our longstanding collaboration, Mayo Clinic reserves seven slots each year for University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign students who are chosen by the Mayo Clinic & Illinois Alliance pre-selection committee. Applicants are selected for their innovative excellence, and often more than seven Illinois students are invited to participate in this prestigious undergraduate fellowship. This year, we are proud to announce that 10 Illinois students will participate in the SURF program!

We look forward to seeing what these students can accomplish with the combined knowledge and experience gained from their time at two world-class research institutions. We invite you to join us to learn more about the fellows' research experiences during a poster session at the Beckman Institute in September. Subscribe to the Mayo Clinic & Illinois Alliance mailing list for updates on educational opportunities and an invitation to the fall poster session.

Meet the 2023 Illinois SURF cohort

Milica BaracMILICA BARAC (she/her) is a James Scholar majoring in bioengineering at the University of Illinois. As an Illinois student, she works in Prof. Andrew Smith’s lab investigating the anti-inflammatory effect of drug combinations in macrophages. In her free time, Milica enjoys figure skating and volunteering. She hopes to pursue a career that provides the opportunity to understand how lifestyle factors contribute to the development of chronic inflammatory diseases and how wearable technologies can be used to assist in the development of predictive modeling. Milica previously participated in the program as part of the 2022 SURF cohort under Dr. Arjun Athreya’s mentorship. As a 2023 SURF, she will work in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at Mayo Clinic with Dr. Athreya to analyze wearable device data to see if physiological markers can be used to predict certain mental health outcomes. 

Katerina BaxterKATERINA BAXTER (she/her) is a James Scholar majoring in bioengineering and minoring in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois. As an Illinois student, she is involved in research with the Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory under Prof. Stephen Boppart working on imaging cancer cells and their extracellular vesicles in response to radiation treatment. Katerina is involved in the Biomedical Engineering Society at UIUC and has participated in Engineering Open House projects through the tech committee. These projects included anatomical 3D printing and an EMG demonstration, where she presented to younger students and community members. She is also a member of the Cancer Scholars Program, which brings together students from different majors to explore areas of cancer research. As a 2023 SURF, Katerina will be doing research under Dr. Richard Ehman in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Physiology at Mayo Clinic, where research focuses on medical imaging, specifically MRI, and how it can be used for medical diagnosis of different conditions.

Dajana DuciDAJANA DUCI (she/her) is majoring in psychology with a concentration in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Illinois. As an Illinois student, she is working under Dr. Aaron T. Anderson on her current project to evaluate quantitative methods for neuroimaging to improve identification of risk factors for post traumatic epilepsy, which will be her senior thesis. Dajana is the membership director of the Deutschklub at Illinois, where she uses creative ways to generate DKlub membership and aid in fostering student connections. She is currently a research assistant for the Champaign-Urbana Population Study (CUPS), a community study collaboration between Carle Health and the University of Illinois to build a brain imaging dataset that will be used to strengthen diagnostic predictions and identify novel features. In Summer 2022, Dajana received the Carle Neuroscience Institute Undergraduate Research Award, which allowed her to conduct independent research alongside engineers and physicians to realize the full diagnostic potential of magnetic resonance elastography (MRE). She aims to become a physician scientist in neurology. As a 2023 SURF, Dajana will work in the lab of Dr. Marissa J. Schafer at Mayo Clinic studying the influence of sex hormones on brain aging and senescence. 

Alicia KimALICIA KIM (she/her) is a James Scholar majoring in bioengineering and minoring in psychology at the University of Illinois. As an Illinois student, she works in the laboratory of Prof. Rashid Bashir, where her research involves using loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) and microfluidic devices to detect different bacteria and viruses, including Hepatitis A, Influenza, and HIV. At the 2023 Engineering Open House, Alicia co-led an exhibit called Epi-Push, where her team developed a prototype for a cost-effective and user-friendly epinephrine auto-injector, winning the Distinguished Biomedical Application award and the opportunity to pitch to visitors of all ages. She is a workshop coordinator for the Biomedical Engineering Society at UIUC, where she helps organize workshops that teach bioengineers skills such as reading research papers and using CAD software. Alicia hopes to pursue an MD-PhD with a focus in obstetrics and gynecology to conduct research promoting developments in women's health and maternal care. As a 2023 SURF, Alicia will work in Dr. Elina Jerschow’s lab at Mayo Clinic, where she will be using techniques such as ELISA to investigate the causes of aspirin-exacerbated respiratory disease (AERD), an inflammatory disorder of the sinuses and lungs.

Jonathan LouisJONATHAN LOUIS (he/him) is a James Scholar majoring in bioengineering and minoring in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois. As an Illinois student, he works in the laboratory of Prof. Patrick Sweeney on data analysis, such as post-processing for fiber photometry signaling, FED3 feeding experimentation, and single-nucleus RNA sequencing methodology, which primarily involves creating analysis pipelines in MATLAB and R programming languages. Jonathan is a tutor in the Center for Academic Resources in Engineering (CARE), where he is responsible for the typical calculus sequence, differential equations, general chemistry and physics, and freshman through junior-level electrical engineering classes. He is Vice President of the Cancer Center at Illinois Student Organization, which serves to educate undergraduate students on groundbreaking cancer research, connect with alumni working in biotechnology and medicine, and connect incoming freshmen classes to research early on in their undergraduate careers. Jonathan hopes to acquire a PhD in bioengineering or electrical engineering, working on nanotechnology and medicine, with the goal of working primarily in immunoengineering or developing novel imaging technologies for early detection methods for cancer, infectious disease, or neurological conditions. As a 2023 SURF, Jonathan will work with Dr. Connie Chang at Mayo Clinic, where his project will be focused on creating a novel method for single-cell sequencing of influenza A infections using drop-based microfluidics, a technology that involves creating thousands of barcoded hydrogel beads to perform next generation sequencing of viral populations at the single cell level. 

Varshini MurugeshVARSHINI MURUGESH (she/her) is a James Scholar and Clare Boothe Luce Research Scholar majoring in bioengineering and minoring in chemistry at the University of Illinois. As an Illinois student, she works in the Chemical Imaging and Structures Laboratory under Professor and Cancer Center at Illinois Director Rohit Bhargava on a digital histopathology project to train machine learning models on Fourier-transform infrared datasets to distinguish between tissue subtypes and diagnose cancer. Varshini is a Chemistry 103 Teaching Assistant, and a member of the Cancer Scholars Program. She is interested in pursuing a PhD in computational biology, where she hopes to use machine learning to model gene expression and regulation, with the long-term goal of working in translational bioinformatics to directly treat and prevent disease. As a 2023 SURF, Varshini will work in the Stem Cell and Cancer Biology Laboratory under Dr. Nagarajan Kannan at Mayo Clinic to investigate the effect of gut microbiota on the metastatic route of certain clonal types of cancer using a computational pipeline.

Neha RamachandranNEHA RAMACHANDRAN (she/her) is a James Scholar majoring in molecular and cellular biology and minoring in Spanish and chemistry at the University of Illinois. As an Illinois student, she works under Prof. Milan Bagchi to conduct research elucidating molecular mechanisms involved in establishing early pregnancy in humans, and under Prof. Hillary Klonoff-Cohen to conduct research identifying prognostic indicators of live birth for cancer patients undergoing fertility preservation. Neha is a member of the initial cohort of the LAS Global Leaders Program, which provides domestic and international students real-world practice in problem-solving, cross-cultural communication, and organizational support through human centered design framework projects. In addition to her research experience at Illinois, Neha is passionate about implementing research in the form of accessible health care. She is the Director of the case management team at Avicenna Community Health Center and a volunteer at Crisis Nursery. Neha’s research experiences at Illinois combined with her work in community health organizations have directed her interests to pursue a career allowing a simultaneous focus on clinical and research aspects of female reproductive biology. As a 2023 SURF,  Neha will work with Mayo Clinic Evidence-Based Practice Research Program lead Dr. Hassan Murad on a project to conduct clinical systematic reviews and meta-analysis. 

Walker Rickord

WALKER RICKORD (he/him) is a James Scholar seeking a dual degree in bioengineering and psychology and a minor in computer science at the University of Illinois. He has worked under Prof. Paul Jensen to apply a neural network to select the most efficient method of solving a biological optimization problem, which designs randomized DNA sequences free of restriction enzyme recognition sites. Additionally, under Suma Cardwell at Sandia National Laboratories Center for Computing Research, Walker built an event sensor data pipeline for motion segmentation. Within Illinois Medical Advancements through Design and Engineering (i-MADE), Walker served as the Vice President of Technological Affairs and assisted with the execution of community-based biomedical projects, technical workshops, and recruitment efforts; and as a Co-Founder of Nephra, worked to predict potassium levels from electrocardiogram waveforms to assist chronic kidney disease patients. He aims to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering with a concentration in bioinformatics and aspires to use artificial intelligence within biomedical data to transform and individualize rare disease diagnosis and treatment. As a 2023 SURF, Walker will work with Dr. Hakan Ceylan at Mayo Clinic to overcome roadblocks in cell therapies, targeted delivery, and tissue engineering by applying computational techniques to biomedical imaging responsible for directing medical microbots.

Megan ZhouMEGAN ZHOU (she/her) is majoring in bioengineering at the University of Illinois. As an Illinois student, she works in the laboratory of Prof. Huimin Zhao under postdoctoral fellow Guangde Jiang exploring novel enzymatic functions to synthesize drug precursors with a greener, more sustainable, and more efficient reaction than traditional chemical methods. Megan represented Illinois in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition last semester on a project addressing the issue of nitrate pollution in waterways by creating a nitrate capture system made of bacterial extracellular matrix proteins. In her free time, she enjoys rock climbing with members of the Champaign-Urbana community and has competed in multiple bouldering competitions. Megan hopes to pursue a PhD and secure an R&D position or work in a National Laboratory researching disease mechanisms to design novel therapeutics or treatment methods. As a 2023 SURF, Megan will work in the Cancer Epigenetics and Functional Genomics Laboratory under Dr. Haojie Huang at Mayo Clinic to study how genetic and epigenetic alterations lead to prostate cancer in the hopes in identifying targets for cancer diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment.

Roy ZhouROY ZHOU (he/him) is a Chancellor’s Scholar majoring in bioengineering and minoring in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois with career plans to become a Medical researcher. As a 2023 SURF, Roy will work with Dr. Su-Youne Chang at Mayo Clinic to improve the therapeutic efficacy of Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) based upon neurobiological research with a focus on individualizing treatment paradigms through convergent physiology, neurochemistry, and neuroimaging.