WCU student receives award from Howard Hughes Medical Institute

WCU junior Alma Plaza-Rodriguez is the recipient of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Exceptional Research Opportunities Program Award.

WCU junior Alma Plaza-Rodriguez is the recipient of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Exceptional Research Opportunities Program Award.

Western Carolina University junior Alma Plaza-Rodriguez was recently selected as a recipient of the 2016 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Exceptional Research Opportunities Program Award.

Plaza-Rodriguez, who is originally from Puerto Rico but now resides in Bunnlevel, will spend 10 weeks this summer conducting research at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. Plaza-Rodriguez, a chemistry major with a concentration in biomedical science and technology, was nominated for the honor by WCU biochemistry assistant professor Jamie Wallen.

The goal of the Exceptional Research Opportunities Program is to ensure that a diverse and highly trained workforce is ready to take on leadership roles in science. Following completion of the summer study programs, HHMI continues working with the recipients to encourage them to pursue careers in science.

Plaza-Rodriguez only recently became interested in science. She came to WCU as a political science major. She said realized at a young age that she wanted to do something related to public service.

“I wanted to do something that served the community, kind of giving back,” she said. “I quickly realized that (political science) wasn’t the thing for me, so then I changed over to chemistry. I started developing a strong interest for neuroscience in relation to diseases particularly.”

WCU biochemistry assistant professor Jamie Wallen (right) instructs Plaza-Rodriguez on how to operate the AKTA purifier.

WCU biochemistry assistant professor Jamie Wallen (right) instructs Plaza-Rodriguez on how to operate the AKTA purifier.

She believes that stems from her teenage years when she helped care for her grandfather who developed Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“During my early years in high school, I went to school and was very diligent with my studies, but when I came home I just helped my mom take care of him. I think that had a really influential part in my interest for neurodegenerative diseases because it has a special place for me in my heart.”

Plaza-Rodriguez got her wish to work on ALS research after requesting to work at St. Jude’s, where she will work with Dr. J. Paul Taylor, who specializes in cell and molecular biology.

“I think that makes me want to work that much harder,” she said.

In addition to doing laboratory research, she will attend two meetings at HHMI’s headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to present her research in a poster session. Because Plaza-Rodriguez plans to pursue a doctorate degree in biochemistry, she is eligible to receive continued support from HHMI during her doctoral training through the Gilliam Fellows program.

WCU is affiliated with HHMI through the SEA-Phages program, which allows the university to nominate two students each year to apply for the Exceptional Research Opportunities Program. Students interested in being nominated for the program during the next application cycle (fall 2016) should contact Wallen at jamiewallen@wcu.edu, or biology instructor Maria Gainey at mdgainey@wcu.edu.