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By Sarah Hansen
Alexis Waller has had powerful experiences with research and mentorship at UMBC. Being part of UMBC STEM BUILD was at the root of her exposure to research opportunities that have supported her ongoing success.
“BUILD showed me what research actually was,” Waller, a recent grad in biological sciences, said. Before UMBC, Waller had never been inside a lab, but now, she shared, “I just love being in the lab setting and doing hands-on research.”
In her first year, Waller presented at the UMBC Undergraduate Research Symposium with BUILD. With support from Laura Ott, Ph.D., the active learning coordinator for STEM BUILD, Waller joined the lab of Michael Summers, Ph.D., in 2016. Summers is the Robert E. Meyerhoff Chair for Excellence in Research and Mentoring and University Distinguished Professor in chemistry and biochemistry, and is known around the world for both his research and his commitment to supporting students from all backgrounds.
His lab’s research focuses on how the HIV-1 retrovirus assembles copies of itself within infected cells, so that the copies can emerge to infect other cells. At any given time, the lab group includes dozens of student researchers, many of them undergraduates, creating a vibrant environment rich in peer and near-peer mentorship.
In addition to Summers, UMBC postdoc Pengfei Ding provides direct research mentorship to Waller. “He has always been very patient and encouraged me to ask questions,” Waller said of Ding. Waller started out in a shadowing role in the lab, but explained, “As I’ve gotten more confident and knowledgeable, the more responsibility I’ve been given.”
Doing research is still challenging at times, but Waller said she is always working on building up her skills in certain lab techniques, so she can get successful results from her experiments more consistently. Because of her inner drive and a supportive network, minor setbacks don’t deter her, and her future is bright.
Waller became a MARC U*STAR Scholar in 2017 and graduated from UMBC in December 2018. Now she works as a research assistant on her team’s project studying a step in the replication of HIV. By contributing to a better understanding of that step, she’s helping provide the knowledge necessary for other scientists to develop treatments to block HIV replication, preventing spread of the infection.
She’s currently applying to Ph.D. programs in microbiology, and longer-term, she’s looking forward to a career in the biotech industry.
“Being a part of BUILD and MARC, and working in the Summers lab,” she said, “has all led to me deciding to pursue a Ph.D.”
The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.