Kristen M. Kelly, MD selected as fellow in the Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) Program

The Office of the Dean is pleased to announce the acceptance of Kristen M. Kelly, MD, as a fellow in the Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) Program. Dr. Kelly is chair of the Department of Dermatology at the UCI School of Medicine,  and a professor in the Departments of Dermatology and Surgery at UCI School of Medicine. She is also a clinical researcher at the UCI Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic.

ELAM is an intensive one-year program of leadership training with extensive coaching, networking and mentoring opportunities aimed at expanding the national pool of qualified women candidates for leadership in academic medicine, dentistry and public health. Dr. Kelly will participate in this one-year curriculum focused on strategic finance, organizational dynamics and personal leadership effectiveness.

Click here to learn more about Kristen Kelly, MD.

Miles Journeyed for Morgan Josey

Wilder-Smith celebrates ACES program mentee’s dental school graduation

On Saturday, May 20, Morgan Josey, who participated in UCI Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Access to Careers in Engineering and Sciences (ACES) undergraduate summer training program, graduated from the Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry.  During the summer of 2018, Morgan participated in the ACES program as a junior studying Biology at Albany State University.

As Morgan’s mentor while in the ACES program, Dr. Petra Wilder-Smith, the Institute’s director of Dentistry and professor of Medicine, traveled over 2,000 miles from Orange County, California to Nashville, Tennessee to watch Morgan cross The Grand Ole Opry House Auditorium’s stage with her dental degree.

“I was delighted to participate in this important day celebrating Morgan’s graduation,” said Dr. Wilder-Smith, “During Morgan’s time as a summer student researcher at UCI, she channeled her insatiable curiosity and considerable talents into a project to improve oral cancer screening participation in local underserved individuals attending community clinics.”

“With her warm personality and friendly smile, Morgan was able to build bridges with many of the patients, helping them to overcome their fear of clinics and to undergo oral cancer screenings – often for the first time,” continued Dr. Wilder-Smith, “Morgan was awarded a research award for this work, which she presented at a national conference.”

Morgan continued to grow and develop her clinical skills as a dental student at Meharry Medical College.  She exemplified the mission of the school to improve the health and health care of minority and underserved communities, placing special emphasis on providing opportunities to people of color and individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, regardless of race or ethnicity; delivering high quality health services and conducting research that fosters the elimination of health disparities.

“I am certain that Morgan will be a positive force in the lives of her dental patients, and I know that her integrity, dedication and care for all will serve as an inspiration to us all.”

Click here to learn more about the Institute’s HBCU ACES summer undergraduate training program.

UC Irvine-led study reveals first clear link between chronic kidney disease and stroke risk

Photo credit: School of Medicine

Reducing renal disease may ultimately improve brain health

Irvine, Calif., May 3, 2023 — A study led by University of California, Irvine neurology and nephrology experts has revealed the first clear link between chronic kidney disease and increased cerebrovascular disease. It was previously thought that renal disease’s effects on the brain were largely due to hypertension, but researchers discovered that CKD promoted the development of cerebral microhemorrhages independent of blood pressure.

Findings, recently published online in the Journal of Neuroinflammation, show that a mix of gut-derived bacteria-dependent toxins and urea, which accumulates in kidney failure, can cause vascular injury and microhemorrhages in the brain.

“CKD is increasingly recognized as a stroke risk factor, but its exact relationship with cerebrovascular disease is not well understood. Our study provides crucial insights into the underlying mechanisms of brain injury that can occur in CKD, offering new therapeutic targets that involve treating kidney disease,” said Dr. Mark Fisher, professor of neurology in the UCI School of Medicine and corresponding author. “Observations have shown that people with advanced kidney disease are at a higher risk for stroke, suggesting that we can ultimately enhance brain health by reducing renal disease.”

Researchers randomly divided aged female and male mice into control and CKD groups. They found that CKD produces brain microhemorrhages without hypertension and to a greater extent in mice with more severe kidney injury. They also observed a sex difference, whereby males showed a more pronounced increase in microhemorrhages than females.

“The effects of CKD are associated with blood-brain barrier impairment, which is caused by uremic toxins and microglia, the brain’s resident immune cells. We know that inflammatory cells in the brain play an important role in how CKD causes cerebrovascular disease, but we need to understand this relationship in better detail,” said Dr. Wei Ling Lau, associate professor of medicine-nephrology in the UCI School of Medicine. “It remains to be seen if just treating kidney disease by itself will improve brain health.”

The team also included researchers from the departments of neurology, medicine-nephrology, pathology & laboratory medicine in the UCI School of Medicine, the UCI Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders, and the department of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences in the School of Pharmacy at Chapman University.

This work was supported by National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes under award numbers R01NS20989 and R01NS113337, and by the National Institutes of Aging, R01AG072896 and R01AG062840, of the National Institutes of Health.

Click here to read the full UCI News article.

Biology Runs in the Blood

Olamide Fategbe, UCI graduate student, shares his undergraduate summer program experience in UCI Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic’s Access to Careers in Engineering and Sciences (ACES) program and his Nigerian roots

Before coming to UCI, you were at Alcorn State University, correct?

Originally, I’m from Nigeria. Yoruba is my traditional ethnic group. It’s one of the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria, where there are more than 100 different cultures. My culture is Yoruba, which is predominantly in the southwestern part of Nigeria, and we speak Yoruba language.

I came to the U.S. for college at Alcorn State University. Mississippi was my first home here.

What brought you to Alcorn?

Back in Nigeria, I tried to get into medical school. I thought I wanted to be a doctor. The way it is in Nigeria – you get into medical school directly from high school. I didn’t get in, so my parents said to try the SATs. I tried and I passed.

Then, I applied to Alcorn and a couple of other schools. Alcorn gave me a full ride scholarship, so I decided to go there.

What was your impression of the United States?

It’s very different from Nigeria. I grew up in Lagos. People from different parts of the country live and speak different languages, but English is the national language. Everyone speaks a variation of English called pidgin English – that’s how most people communicate informally.

In Mississippi, the majority of students are indigenes of the state and everyone speaks English. The culture is also really different from Lagos.

I was the first in my family to leave Nigeria and study in the U.S. It is eye opening being from a different part of the world. It was a big culture shock, but I appreciated the experience.

There are a lot of African Americans at Alcorn. The culture is inclusive – it’s really dynamic.

How did you hear about the ACES program?

One of my professors at Alcorn – Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Stefan Cooper – previously worked at Hampton University. He had a connection to Institute Associate Director and Project Scientist Dr. Sari Mahon.

Dr. Cooper shared about the program and urged me and others to apply. I was a student in his lab, so I applied.

What did you think about the program?

It was awesome! ACES was the first internship that I had that was really rewarding and engaging. In addition to lab work, there were other sessions or events – like team building opportunities.

I gained a lot. The program was why I applied to grad school. The experience showed me that I enjoyed research and that I wanted to learn more.

Had you previously done research before ACES?

Back in Nigeria, I wasn’t exposed to research. At Alcorn, I had an internship at another university. I didn’t do any research and the program wasn’t as engaging as ACES.

The only experience I had with research was in Dr. Cooper’s lab at Alcorn. The research was mainly around organic chemistry concepts. There was a lot of reading and presenting opportunities. It gave me a head start for ACES.

What project did you work on in ACES?

I worked with Professor of Surgery and Biomedical Engineering Dr. Thomas Milner. We worked on using percutaneous coronary interventions to treat chronic total occlusions (CTOs) in coronary arteries.

The main method was using lasers and stents to treat total occlusions. In the end, I was a part of the team, writing the proposal for the project.

Did you connect with any other faculty or program leaders while you were in ACES?

A number of UCI faculty oversaw the program. Every morning, we met with a program leader, including Drs. Mahon, Venugopalan and Potma. The meetings were helpful in networking and getting to know one another.

I worked with the team in Dr. Milner’s lab. I even met other researchers – collaborators from an institution in Texas. That was a good networking opportunity too.

We also had a general meeting with students from other UCI summer research programs. I met students from other schools during those meetings.

What made you decide to come to UCI versus other schools?

I applied to schools everywhere in the U.S., including some University of California (UC) schools. I chose UCI because I felt like I had a family – a network. I already knew Dr. Mahon and others. They were supportive and helpful in navigating the application process.

Another reason why was my experience on visiting day – a day for prospective new students. Professor of Developmental and Cell Biology Dr. Peter Donovan gave us a tour. The way he depicted UCI was awesome. He sold me on the university. He’s very jovial. Naturally, that drew me to the school. I’m currently in Dr. Donovan’s stem cell biology class.

What interests you about cardiovascular research?

While doing the literature search in ACES, I discovered that heart disease, or heart failure, is one of the major causes of death in the U.S. There aren’t many treatments for this condition, besides heart repair and regeneration.

That really struck me. I wanted to see the role that biology could play in trying to solve the problem of heart disease or heart failure.

I also have a huge interest in stem cells. I thought it would be a cool research project to see how stem cells and cardiovascular research merge. For example, can we use biology to have alternative treatments for cardiac diseases?

What research are you doing now?

I’m still rotating projects. The first rotation I had was research on stem cells and the skin.

Right now, I’m working with vascular chronic kidney diseases and how chronic kidney disease relates to vascular damage in the brain.

How did you get involved with that project?

At the beginning of the year, the principal investigator (PI) gave a presentation at the faculty introduction. Her presentation was interesting, so decided that I wanted to rotate in her lab to work on the project.

My third rotation has to do with vasculature in pregnancy – blood transfer/flow between mother and fetus. Right now, I think the whole trajectory of my career is leaning toward vasculature. I one hundred percent enjoy what I am doing. It’s a win-win.

How do you like being at UCI?

UCI is a really good school. I’ve been here for six months, and I’ve enjoyed it so far.

I live on campus in graduate housing. It’s awesome. I have a strong sense of the student community and I’ve met a lot of people. I’m getting accustomed to the culture. It’s great.

Are you enjoying your professors?

The professors are great. This is where you’re kind-of struggling because grad school is very different from undergrad. In undergrad, you’re basically fed information. All you have to do is understand and pass a test.

In grad school, you are outsourcing information, and the professors are there as a guide. It can be hard to navigate, but the faculty show a readiness and willingness to help.

What would you like to do in the future?

Right now, I am certain that I will go into industry after my Ph.D. program. I may work on vascular-related projects for a big pharma company.

I also enjoy teaching. In undergrad, I was a tutor for a few years, which I enjoyed.

If you had to sum up ACES and how it impacted you, what was the biggest impact?

The biggest impact ACES had was on my decision to apply to grad school. I realized how much I enjoy research. If I didn’t have the opportunity to be a part of ACES, then I probably wouldn’t be in grad school.

What did you like most about ACES?

My favorite thing about the program is the network. UCI grad students, who were former ACES students, facilitated and advised us during ACES. That had a major impact. The grad students gave us a different perspective about what it was like to be at UCI.

I especially related to UCI grad student Chris Johnson. We connected. He shared advice. Chris was one of the first people I contacted when I arrived in Irvine. He showed me around and told me the do’s and don’ts of UCI.

UCI grad student Breyah Matthews was also helpful. I think having the grad students as a resource was a major advantage for us undergrad students.

How can we improve the program? What can we do to support other students?

It would be great to make the opportunity available to a larger group of students. There are so many students out there who could benefit.

What does your family think about you being a grad student at UCI?

My mom is a biology teacher. She has an understanding and can relate to what I’m working on – what I’m experiencing. She used to give me books to read about biology and the human body. The values she instilled – it was a no brainer to pursue science.

She’s the major inspiration behind my interest in biology. My mom is one hundred percent on board and is happy about what I’m doing.

UCI Summer Institution Pride

Sydney Williams, UCSF graduate student, shares her undergraduate summer program experience in UCI Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic’s Access to Careers in Engineering and Sciences (ACES) program and what it means to be a Black woman in science

I noticed you’re wearing a UCI sweatshirt.

I still represent my summer institution. I bought it during my first summer at UCI and it’s still holding on.

How did you hear about ACES?

My friend Lauryn was an ACES alum and recommended that I apply. At the time, I was a freshman and didn’t think I’d be accepted.

My entire life, I thought I would go to medical school and hadn’t considered doing research or pursuing grad school. As a first-generation college student and in my community, we [African Americans] aren’t typically exposed to science.

What led you to think that you wanted to be an M.D.?

Science was always my thing. Growing up, I loved studying the body – anatomy and physiology. I studied a book of the systems of the body.

Then, I got hurt playing basketball. When I went to rehab, I thought about becoming a physician, specializing in sports medicine or becoming a physical therapist. I didn’t have the best impression about the benefits of having a Ph.D. It wasn’t until I had research experience. Before that, I was purely chasing opportunity.

The summer before my senior year, I realized that I hadn’t set myself up for success in applying to medical school. That’s when I started thinking about grad school. I had to do my own research on what it actually meant to do research. Only then, did I consider other potential paths.

Then, COVID hit, which changed my course. Within the fall of my senior year, I became serious about Ph.D. programs.

Institute Associate Director and Project Scientist Dr. Sari Mahon suggested that I connect with her daughter who worked in industry. That’s when I truly understood what doing research meant and the various pathways to industry. With a Ph.D., there was much more to offer, than what I originally thought.

Next thing you know, I was writing applications, scheduling interviews and was on the first plane to California.

What did you think about the ACES program? What research did you do?

ACES was my gateway to graduate school. It really opened my eyes to all things research.

My first project was in the Berns lab at the Institute under Dr. Nicole Wakida and the late Institute Founding Director Dr. Michael Berns, who I loved. We worked on the activation and function of microglia, immune cells of brain that respond central nervous system that repair the brain after infection and traumatic injuries. At the time, astrocytes were becoming a hot topic in neuroscience.

My second project was under UCI Professor of Pulmonology Dr. Matt Brenner and Dr. Mahon, studying cyanide poisoning. I worked in chemistry and biology. I learned how to do infusions and other techniques, like which spectrophotometer to use and practicing dilution techniques.

I was also playing with engineering. I created a device that made it easy to read cyanide poisoning in blood. The project spearheaded my interest in drugs and toxins. It led me to the Pharmaceutical Sciences program that I’m in now. It was really fun presenting the project. To this day, I still
have the poster.

Tell me a little bit about the program. What aspects of ACES did you like?

The support from the Principal Investigators (PIs) and the Engineers was awesome. I appreciated gaining real life experience. You had to be in the lab, dedicated to the project to get results.

I also enjoyed meeting other people. With the program dedicated to HBCUs, these type of HBCU programs are few and far between in comparison to the majority of universities in the nation. To find a group of Black scientists interested in doing something that was unheard of, or not known, was really cool.

I still talk to a lot of the students I met. They’re all doing phenomenal things. It’s really cool to see these brilliant minds – people who look just like me. ACES brought us together and created a phenomenal community.

Did you feel supported while in ACES?

I still talk to Dr. Mahon and former UCI Assistant Dean of the Office of Access and Inclusion Dr. Sharnnia Artis. They made sure that I was good – on a personal note and academically. They asked if I there was anything that I needed and if I had any questions.

It was an awesome introduction to what I’m doing now. Without the program, I don’t think I would have seriously considered graduate school.

What are you doing now? What research are you doing?

I feel like I stumbled into my Ph.D. program. Unlike most people, when I joined the program, I didn’t have a research interest in mind.

Now, I’m a rising second-year in the Pharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmacogenomics program at UC San Francisco (UCSF). I joined the Lakkaraju lab, studying age related macular degeneration (AMD).

We’re studying the molecular mechanisms behind the causes of AMD and repurposing common drugs known to either restore or at least halt the progression of AMD. This is all in the hopes of restoring sudden vision loss.

I chose the Lakkaraju lab based on the mentorship opportunity. The bonus was that the field is very niche. We don’t have a lot of answers and it’s not a saturated market.

Being novel, leaves ample space to study and figure out answers to questions that we haven’t even considered. I think most people don’t even know what AMD is, but it’s so common. I’m excited to see what I can do.

What does your community at home think about you being in the Ph.D. program? Your family? Your professors at Hampton University?

My Hampton family was thrilled – they were extremely excited. My Ronald McNair Scholars program family at Hampton encouraged me to pursue the summer research opportunity at UCI in the first place. They think UCSF is a great school and can’t believe I’m on the West Coast.

My immediate family – they’re super excited. Every other time we talk, I break down what I’m working on.

From observing ACES seminars, it seems like the program teaches students not only how to be a scientist, but also how to translate research into layman’s terms. Was this valuable?

It is much bigger skill set than people realize. It is very underrated. It’s extremely hard to remove the jargon and translate research. You have to break down the science – plain and simple.

The ACES symposiums, introducing how to present at conferences, definitely helped. Before ACES, I didn’t realize how people were explaining their research.

I feel like science communication is the one barrier between people who don’t know about science and people who do. I would love to bridge that gap.

I’ve already spent several summers coming home, sharing my posters with my family. I hope to use the training that I’ve had in ACES and in the Ph.D. program to communicate better. I’m going to spend the next four years practicing. That’s the plan.

It sounds like mentorship was something that you gained from ACES. How are important are these connections?

I want to maintain connections with people from the past – like those at UCI.

Now, I work with students in high school and undergrad programs that are helping Black and Brown students. I see value in mentoring, since those who mentored me are the whole reason why I’m in grad school.

During my first year, my main focus was building connections and networking. I was not only getting acclimated to classes, but I was also talking to PIs. I want to talk to people in different career fields – authors in science communication, consultants on TV shows or those in the pharma and biotech industries. That’s where my trajectory is now.

It seems like you’re doing all the right things to lead you to where you want to be. How is your first year in grad school going?

I would not trade my first year for anything. The first year is typically very difficult. The support and preparation that I received in ACES and at Hampton helped me join the communities that I’m now a part of.

I was a sheltered child from Charlotte, North Carolina without much experience outside Charlotte. These past experiences helped me feel comfortable being me, while also learning new things.

I’ve met new people. I’ve eaten new food. I’m stepping out of my comfort zone – intentionally trying to build a community. I’ve enjoyed the accumulation of these experiences because they’ve taught me to be intentional about what I want.

There’s so much growth to be had in a Ph.D. program. My goal is to grow as a person. Over time and after my dissertation, I’ll figure out where I’ll land.

Would you recommend ACES to others?

Absolutely – I’ve shared with many others. From someone who was never exposed to science prior, ACES is extremely important. ACES provides the opportunity to get your feet wet and even swim a little bit. That’s the fun part.

You get to see what you don’t know. Everything feels new – the symposiums, the people, the scientific jargon. The program allows you to explore without being overwhelmed. It’s extremely important for anyone who’s interested in science – even if only slightly interested.

What has it meant being a Black woman in science?

To be a black woman in science is huge. I’m still learning about the impact because I’m still new to what it means. It’s pretty revolutionary because there’s a lot of science that gets swept under the rug or ignored because it doesn’t talk to the majority.

Being present in these spaces and making my presence felt is important. I want others to know I’m here. I want my voice to be heard in these research experiences.

It’s a challenge because I’m triple minority. I’m a Black, queer woman in science. I have a lot of populations to represent. I’m going to make sure that we’re represented. I’m going make my mark regardless.

I’m happy to have a community. Through B-STEM, our Black excellence in STEM group, and some of our other extracurricular groups, I don’t feel like I’m by myself. It’s a journey.

As a university, what can we do better to help support students?

I think continuing the bridge to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is extremely important.

Continuing to cultivate an environment of inclusivity is huge. It’s not just about having a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) panel or having a DEI event. I already know what it’s like to be Black or Brown. I’ve lived it my entire life. What I do need is for people to show up and not just be figureheads – to put action behind it and make sure that there are spaces, where we feel supported.

If there’s prejudice or discriminative acts, we need to make sure that someone’s there to stick up for us. I think the little things go a long way, like being open to learning about the boundaries that have been set or the stigmas that had been implied for years.

I think a lot of people believe that science is free from all of those stigmas and that it is objective, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s important for people to learn and be willing to continue to learn. Otherwise, there won’t be much change.

I’m blessed to say that I’ve had this opportunity, but I know that not everyone does. There definitely needs to be improvement – there needs to be change.

On the hunt for hair loss cures

UCI researchers garner national attention for breakthroughs to reverse baldness

Seeing children devastated by severe hair loss spurred Dr. Natasha Mesinkovska’s quest for a remedy. Dissecting rat whiskers as a teenager led Maksim Plikus into baldness research.

Although they tackle the problem of thinning manes from different angles — Plikus as a laboratory scientist and Mesinkovska as a dermatologist treating patients — their efforts have helped make UC Irvine a leader in the field, from bench to bedside.

“Hair is the next frontier,” Mesinkovska says.

But it’s cloaked in mystery. What makes locks curly versus straight — or an eyelash different from the hair in a beard or a ponytail?

“Nobody knows for sure,” Plikus says. “There’s a lot we still don’t fully understand.”

In a recent interview, he and Mesinkovska discuss research obstacles, hair enigmas, dubious baldness elixirs and promising new findings, including Plikus’ discovery of a molecule that revived dormant follicles in mice.

Much of a person’s self-image is tangled up in tresses, says Mesinkovska, an associate professor and vice chair of dermatology research at the UCI School of Medicine and former chief scientific officer of the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, which combats hair loss disease. A healthy mane signifies youth, beauty and vitality, she adds.

When it falls out, the emotional impact can be dramatic.

“People plead to be in our clinical trials,” says Plikus, a UCI professor of developmental and cell biology who worked in a Los Angeles hair transplant clinic — where grafts from the back of a person’s head are moved to the top — before deciding to get a PhD.

But such studies are rare, partly because federal agencies are tightfisted when it comes to funding baldness research, Mesinkovska says. Hair disorders aren’t fatal, so they’re not a top priority, Plikus explains.

Another problem is that mice, the most common laboratory test subjects, are poor stand-ins for people. For starters, their fur is unaffected by testosterone, which plays a powerful role in human hair growth (and loss), Plikus notes. Rodent hair is also much shorter, so even if a treatment successfully resurrects mouse fur, there’s no guarantee it will work similarly on people, he says.

“We want strands that imitate the original color, length and curvature of a person’s hair,” Plikus says. “But we can’t promise what the new growth will look like. Pigment is especially difficult to reconstruct.”

The same follicles that produce blond hair in a baby might later sprout dark locks, he adds: “How it switches, we don’t know. It’s fascinating.”

To get around the gulf between experimenting on mouse versus human hair, some researchers have tried to grow the latter in petri dishes. But the lab version lasts only a few days, Plikus says.

Others, including UCI scientists, often use computer models based on digitized data from human tissue. “We have cartoon hair growing on a computer screen,” Plikus says.

Mesinkovska has employed artificial intelligence in some of her research. She also recruited patients for a recent New England Journal of Medicine study in which a rheumatoid arthritis drug reversed hair loss in nearly 40% of people with severe alopecia areata.

“My life’s passion is how to grow hair, how to keep the hair we have on our head and how to make it look good,” says Mesinkovska, a Yugoslavia native who moved by herself to the United States at age 16, earned a PhD and an MD, and has co-authored more than 50 scholarly papers on hair loss.

“There are so many things out there that promise to restore hair — from shampoos and gels to devices, lights and helmets,” she says, but most are “snake oil” or based on questionable research. Attempts to clone or 3D-print new hair haven’t yet succeeded.

One treatment with mixed results involves implanting laboratory-cultured hair cells in a person’s scalp. The results last about nine months, Mesinkovska says, adding that the procedure isn’t cheap.

Last year, Plikus made international headlines after his team discovered SCUBE3, a natural protein molecule that restored hair growth in bald mice.

SCUBE3 most likely would be microinjected less than a millimeter beneath a person’s skin, a “fairly painless” process that would have to be repeated periodically to maintain hair growth, Plikus says. He has co-founded a biotechnology company, Amplifica, to potentially commercialize the breakthrough.

He expects human trials on the protein compound to begin later this year.

Read the full article in UCI Health Live Well.

Acing “ACES”

UCI Graduate Student Shares his Undergraduate STEM Summer Program Experience and More

For the past five summers, the Institute has hosted a total of 42 talented undergraduate college students for the Accelerating Careers in Engineering and Science (ACES) program and its predecessor Pathways to Biophotonics and Biomedical Engineering (PBBE) program. This University of California (UC) Office of the President supported Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) partner program introduces high-achieving, underrepresented undergraduate students to the possibilities of graduate education and to UCI graduate programs in the fields of biomedical engineering, biophotonics and related science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.

Chris Johnson, a former ACES program participant, is in his third year as a graduate student in the UCI Department of Biomedical Engineering. He shares his ACES experience, impactful research as a UCI graduate student and future career aspirations.

How did you connect with UCI?
As an undergrad at Hampton University, I participated in two UCI internships. The first was after my freshman year. I helped with a pilot study, gathering data to help apply for a grant. I really enjoyed the first internship, so I decided to come for a second time.

I was in UCI Professor of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, Anatomy & Neurobiology and Bioengineering David Reinkensmeyer’s lab and he does stroke rehabilitation. I helped develop the thumb, index and middle fingers of a hand exoskeleton, which looked like an Ironman hand.

The second summer, I did a stand-alone project, rebuilding a haptic device. When I arrived, the device was in pieces. I reconstructed it and the device worked successfully before I left.

What did you think about those two projects?
The projects were very interesting. Some of the work was difficult. As an undergrad, I studied electrical engineering. For the projects, I had to do some mechanical engineering work. It was definitely a challenge because I hadn’t taken some of the classes that would have helped. Fortunately, I was surrounded by helpful people.

Was this the first time that the exoskeleton was built?
It was Quentin Sanders’ project to build a hand exoskeleton for stroke patients. He was a graduate student in Professor Reinkensmeyer’s lab. Quentin worked on the index and middle fingers, and I created designs and prototypes for the thumb to attach the exoskeleton.

That must have been rewarding to build something to help stroke patients. How did you become interested in this area?
I did robotics in middle school and high school and loved it. During my senior year of high school, my grandfather suffered from a stroke. Once he had a stroke, I thought about what I could do to help. I asked myself questions: “What are my interests?” “What can I find to help him?”

It was interesting because during my first UCI internship, I met Institute Director at the time, Bruce Tromberg. I shared my interests and he suggested that I connect with Dr. Reinkensmeyer. Dr. Tromberg told me about Dr. Reinkensmeyer’s work in stroke rehabilitation and he thought the two of us would get along. The rest is history.

When you returned to your undergrad program, how did you hear about the ACES program?
At the time, ACES was the PBBE program. Hampton University was an HBCU ACES program partner. Hampton University School of Engineering & Technology Assistant Dean for Research Raymond Samuel collaborated with Dr. Tromberg and Institute Associate Director Sari Mahon. As an undergrad, I worked in Dr. Samuel’s lab and he suggested that I apply to ACES. I hadn’t done research and I didn’t know that it was an option after graduating from undergrad. I really liked the program and my interest in conducting research stuck.

What did you think when you returned to UCI to participate in the ACES program?
Quentin Sanders was a great graduate mentor. He introduced me to a lot of UCI faculty and staff. It was almost as if I had a mini-network, so I didn’t feel like I was alone on an island.

Also, Quentin and I are from the same hometown in Maryland. We connected because of our backgrounds and now we’re the best of friends.

What was your experience like in the ACES program?
My experience in ACES was great. We lived on campus 7 with students from other programs. Many different majors were represented – from history to psychology. I called it “the melting pot.” It was interesting to hear about the interests of others and all the research going on at UCI.

What made you decide to apply to graduate school at UCI?
Between the two internships and ACES, I had already been on campus and knew that I wanted to join Dr. Reinkensmeyer’s lab. I also wanted to explore other options in the UC system, so I applied to a couple of UC schools.

Overall, what drew me to UCI was my previous experience and that I had a network. Quentin and former Assistant Dean of the Office of Access and Inclusion Sharnnia Artis were my biggest influences to continue my education and attend graduate school.

I was thankful for the people in the Engineering Department and those in the Engineering program who looked like me. Those in my network shared that this was a good place to grow and pursue a degree.

How did you pick the field of biomedical engineering?
At first, I was interested in mechanical engineering. Dr. Reinkensmeyer suggested biomedical engineering instead. He recommended the field not only because of my electrical engineering background, but because he knew that I was interested in doing clinical work. It was the perfect combination for graduate school and my future career.

Now that you are in graduate school, what are your career aspirations?
Right now, I’m doing stroke rehabilitation. I’m focused on improving ankle function, specifically ankle sensation and movement for walking. When someone has a stroke, one side of the body is affected. Depending on the severity of the stroke, it may be difficult for someone to independently complete their activities of daily living (ADL). Examples of ADLs are getting dressed, getting in and out of a chair, walking, etc. For these examples, it is important that ankles function properly. It may be difficult for them to walk without an assistive device, such as an ankle foot orthosis because of foot drop. Foot drop is muscle weakness that makes it difficult to lift the front part of the foot. This can cause them to trip and fall, so what I focus on is proprioception.

Proprioception is your body’s awareness in space. Some people call it your “sixth sense.” Patients need this awareness to know the position of their ankle.

When I arrived at UCI as a graduate student in June 2019, I told Dr. Reinkensmeyer that I wanted to build a robot. I designed AMPD, or Ankle Measuring Proprioception Device, from the ground up. In February 2020, I finished building AMPD and within a month, it was and is still being used to assess ankles.

I watched the process from the beginning to the end – from the design, to the build and now to watch stroke patients interface with the device. The feedback that patients provided was extremely helpful. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.

Now, I’m building a second robot. In the future, maybe I’ll build another robot for the clinic or launch a company to commercialize the robots that I build.

How is it going building the second robot?
The design of the second robot is going really well and the CAD, or online software, is about 95 percent complete. I tried to take what I learned from building the first robot and applied it to this second version.

The biggest thing that I learned from building AMPD was time management and setting realistic goals. It took me a lot longer to build the robot than I had anticipated. It was extremely challenging and I worked a lot of late nights.

In the upcoming weeks, I will be meeting with the physical therapists who I work closely with to ask for their
feedback. It’s important to get their input because they’re going to operate the machine.

I need to know: What is good? What is bad? The dos and don’ts of the device.

I’ve learned to make things as simple as possible. Complexity is great, but it has to be user friendly, or it will not get used.

Another question that the therapists have asked: “Chris, is it safe?” Safety is the biggest thing. It doesn’t matter if the device helps people. If it’s not safe, then it won’t be used.

Right now, the device is solely for stroke patients, but it has the potential to help many people. People with ankle injuries, including athletes and dancers could benefit – among others.

What do you want to do in the future?
I am considering academia versus industry. I like conducting research that interests me, rather than what a company prefers, and I like to teach. I am a graduate mentor for ACES and I mentor a couple of undergrad students. I get a lot of fulfillment out of watching students’ progress. It makes me smile. I suppose it sounds like I am leaning towards academia.

Would you recommend ACES to other students and if so, what advice would you give students?
I would definitely recommend ACES. The advice that I would give is not to be afraid to try new things. Even if you had one experience or heard about the experience of others, you should try it for yourself. You don’t want to question “what if” later.

How is your grandfather doing? Has he tried the robot?
He’s doing good. He lives in Virginia, so he hasn’t tried the robot. I wish I could transport the machine. Maybe one day. He’s doing good though.

Read the full article in LASER Magazine.

Teddi Mellencamp Has New Skin Cancer Scare—Know the Symptoms

“I’m dealing as best I can with something out of my control.”
Fact check by Emilia Paluszek
Photo: Shutterstock

Teddi Mellencamp is giving an update on her skin cancer battle after having 12 melanomas removed in 2022. “First off, I am forever appreciative of the outpouring of love and support,” the former The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star captioned an Instagram post. “Now an update: I went in for my 4-6 week checkup and there were three new spots my doctors felt needed to be biopsied. I’m getting a lot of questions about the spots being white. I have had both white and brown melanomas; this is why I continue to share to get checked no matter what.

“Also, recently I felt a bump on my neck. My anxiety, of course, took over. I touched it at least 303 times. However, day of appointment, I assumed it was nothing. And then the ultrasound came back irregular. I had the option of a needle biopsy or getting it cut out completely; the doctor recommended the biopsy to start, however there’s a small chance it’ll come back inconclusive and we will then have to remove it. As someone who is a controlled person, I’m dealing as best I can with something out of my control. Things I can control: staying on top of my appointments, self-checks, and asking my doctors questions. I’m trying my best to stay positive and will fill you in when I get the results. If this saves even one person from going through what I’m going through, it’s worth it #melanomaawareness.”

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer both in the US and worldwide. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the 5-year survival rate for melanoma is 99 percent if detected early—which is why regular checkups and being aware of the signs is so important. “We classify skin types into six categories, from the freckled complexion of redheaded people with light eyes, to the deepest dark skin tones,” says UCI Health dermatologist Natasha Mesinkovska, MD, PhD. “We see the most skin cancers in type 1 and 2 (light skin), but the risk is still there across the board.”

1. Melanoma

The three most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma (both non-melanoma skin cancers), and melanoma. “Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer. It develops in cells called melanocytes that produce melanin, the pigment that gives your skin its color,” says dermatologist Dr. Alison Bruce. “The exact cause of all melanomas isn’t clear, but exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation increases your risk of developing the disease. This can come from sunlight, as well as from tanning lamps and tanning beds.

“Also, genetic factors and skin type can play a part in developing skin cancer. The number of melanoma cases has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, especially among middle-age women. The increase may be linked to the rise of tanning bed use in the 1980s, when many women now in their 40s and 50s were in their teens. Melanoma that goes unchecked and spreads can be difficult to treat. But when it’s caught early, melanoma often is curable.”

2. Basal Cell Carcinoma

“Basal cell carcinoma isn’t only the most common type of skin cancer, it’s also the most common cancer, period,” says Anisha Patel, MD. “Fortunately, it also tends to be one of the least aggressive, and normally only requires surgical removal to treat it. These cancers tend to grow pretty slowly, too, so when we see one that’s so large it can’t be easily cut off, it’s usually because someone left it there for a really long time. We do see some unusual cases here at MD Anderson, but it’s still rare for patients to need additional treatment.

“Basal cell carcinomas are primarily caused by excess UV light exposure. But they’re also more likely to develop in skin that’s been treated with radiation therapy. They’re usually pink in color and translucent — almost pearly — in appearance. They’re typically diagnosed when patients have a skin screening, but sometimes patients will notice something unusual on their own and come in to have it checked out.”

3. Squamous Cell Carcinoma

“Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer diagnosed each year,” says Dr. Patel. “In terms of aggression, it falls somewhere between basal cell carcinoma and melanoma. Like basal cell carcinoma, it can be red or pink in color. The difference is that squamous cell carcinoma is normally scaly and ‘hyperkeratotic’ — or rough to the touch, due to a build-up of hard, dead skin.”

Dr. Patel highlights the link between squamous cell and leukemia. “This type of skin cancer is another one that’s caused by sun damage. But certain types of leukemia can also increase patients’ chances of developing squamous cell carcinoma. And certain targeted therapies, immunotherapies and chemotherapies — or even the immunosuppressant drugs used after a stem cell transplant — can make patients more likely to develop it… Squamous cell carcinoma is typically found during skin cancer screening exams or noticed by patients. It’s usually treated the same way as basal cell carcinoma: by cutting the cancer out. But in cases where a patient is immunocompromised, or the cancer has spread or is showing aggressive tendencies — such as wrapping itself around nearby nerves or blood vessels — we also might treat it with immunotherapy or radiation therapy.”

4. Skin Cancer Signs

“When checking your skin for possible concerns, keep in mind the ABCDEs of skin cancer,” says Dr. Bruce. Here are signs of skin cancer to be aware of:

  • “A” is for asymmetry: watch for moles or markings that are irregularly shaped, or where one half looks different from the other.
  • “B” is for border, where the borders of the mole are uneven, jagged or scalloped.
  • “C” is for color, with the color of the mole varying from one area to another. Variation of color within a mole is something to have checked.
  • “D” is for diameter. If you have a mole larger than about one-quarter of an inch in diameter, have it checked.
  • And “E” is for evolving: If a mole changes in size, shape or color, or if there’s bleeding, itching or tenderness, it’s important to have it evaluated promptly.

Dr. Bruce recommends seeing a dermatologist to check areas of the skin a person might miss. “It is important to be familiar with your skin so you can notice changes, but it’s always a good idea to be evaluated by a dermatologist for a baseline skin check. While regular self-evaluation make it more likely that melanoma and other types of skin cancer will be caught early, having a trained expert look for subtle changes you may not see is always helpful. The earlier skin cancer is diagnosed, the better the chances are of curing it.”

5. Helping Prevent Skin Cancer

Most skin cancers are preventable, says Elizabeth Demaree, D.O. Here are her tips for staying safe in the sun (and in the shade!).

  • Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., which are the peak hours of sun strength in North America, even in the winter and on cloudy days.
  • Wear sunscreen — at least sun protection factor (SPF) 30 — throughout the entire year. Reapply sunscreen every two hours or more frequently if you’re swimming or sweating.
  • Wear sun-protective clothing with ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 50+, which blocks 98% of the sun’s rays. Hats with wide brims and sun-protective clothing that covers your arms and legs are helpful to protect your skin from harmful UV damage. Sunscreen doesn’t block all UV rays, which cause skin cancer.
  • Avoid tanning beds. Tanning beds operate with UV lights, damaging your skin and potentially leading to cancer.
  • Self-check your skin. If you notice differences, talk with your health care team.

Dr. Mesinkovska says seeing a dermatologist should be as “commonplace as a mammogram, prostate exam or pap smear. Changing skin spots warrant a closer look. Some people are almost apologetic when they come in but I tell them that there is no such thing as a silly question about a changing spot. I can’t tell you how many lives are saved because people come in for a ‘silly’ reason… The ultraviolet radiation from the sun is a carcinogen. We need to treat it as such and take precautions.”

Read full article on the “Eat This, Not That!” website.


The grant will galvanize the team’s medical imaging technology research.

by Lucas Van Wyk Joel, UCI Physical Sciences Communications

Today, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced that Associate Adjunct Professor Dima Fishman and Professor Eric Potma will receive one of its highly competitive Dynamic Imaging research grants. “Through worldwide open competitions CZI searches for new ideas to help researchers and clinicians see and measure biological processes underlying health and diseases,” said Fishman. “It is a great honor and a wonderful opportunity to advance, share and apply our technology.” As a team, Fishman and Potma are developing cutting-edge approaches to make visualizations of the chemical composition of materials using light in the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The CZI grant will award the team $1 million and will advance a collaborative effort and partnership with Edwards Lifesciences, a healthcare industry giant headquartered in Irvine, Calif. that is widely recognized for being at the frontier of cardiovascular research. The company’s flagship product, heart valve implants, relies on understanding the chemical morphology of tissues and materials used in its production. “Seeing live chemistry is crucial for the development and production as the valve implant’s lifetime has to exceed 80 billion cycles, or heartbeats. New imaging approaches developed by our team at UCI are ideally suited to identify current weaknesses in valve design and will help to improve the valves of the future,” said Potma. Fishman added: “The better the valve, the more lives we save.”

Click here to read the full article on the UCI School of Physical Sciences website.


Technology enables visualization of chemical makeup of materials and tissue.

by Lucas Van Wyk Joel, UCI Physical Sciences Communications

Irvine, Calif., Jan. 4, 2023 – A new visualization technology that captures spectral images of materials in the mid-infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum has been developed by scientists at the University of California, Irvine.

The discovery, which was recently featured on the cover of the journal Science Advances, promises to help researchers and industries across many fields, including medical and tech, quickly visualize the chemical composition of various materials or tissues.

“Mid-IR light is associated with chemical bonds,” said Dave Knez, a Ph.D. candidate in the UCI Department of Chemistry and the lead author of the journal paper. “With this technology, we can more confidently say there’s a particular chemical, or a given chemical bond, in a sample.”

The key to developing the method was being able to quickly capture and differentiate the infrared wavelengths needed to compose images. It’s similar to how smartphone cameras record different colors – and thus different wavelengths – in the visible light spectrum to create photographs, said Dmitry Fishman, director of the Laser Spectroscopy Labs and an associate adjunct chemistry professor at UCI.

Chemical bonds, Fishman explained, only vibrate and absorb light in the infrared part of the spectrum. Until now, it hasn’t been easy to produce an image with good definition. The new technology “sees ‘colors’ in infrared,” he said. “And colors reveal spectroscopic lines, which, in turn, provide a chemical ‘fingerprint.’”

That makes it much easier to accurately assess “the composition of materials that you’re looking at, including human tissues,” said Eric Potma, a UCI chemistry professor and a co-author of the paper.

In the medical field, the most likely applications will be in analyzing tissues afflicted by disease, Potma said, explaining that the method can dramatically speed up and improve such tests.

The technology can also detect changes in chemical composition over time –which would be helpful when tracking chemical reactions and processes.

The work is the next stage in research that the same team reported recently in the journals Nature’s Light: Science and Applications and Optica. Their first prototype, though, wasn’t able to capture the full mid-IR spectrum. Rather, it could only deliver individual image frames of a particular color.

The new development enabled the team to rapidly capture images in which each pixel of the video frame also contains full spectral information.

“It’s the difference between a black-and-white television and a color TV,” said Potma, who noted that’s one reason the previous technology wasn’t ready for deployment in industries like medicine.

Now, Knez and his team hope to devise practical uses for their discovery. “We have plans to employ this technology for solving real problems, from visualization of fundamental chemical processes to cancer research, histopathology, tissue dynamics and a vast number of industry applications – everywhere the ability to see chemistry in real time is critical.”

Click here to read full article on the UCI School of Physical Sciences website.