Presentations, Awards Conclude Impactful Summer at UCLA for Undergraduate Data Scientists

Four people in a laboratory, huddled around a laptop
First-year oral biology Ph.D. candidate Irene Choi (white coat) was selected as a BIG DOC Outstanding Mentor, while her three mentees (l-r) Gauri Vanjari, Chase McGill, and Alice Yu earned Research Excellence Awards.
August 29, 2023

As summer winds down, 27 undergraduate students from across the country are reflecting on their shared eight-week journey of conducting advanced genomics research in UCLA School of Dentistry and David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA laboratories.

The third Bruins in Genomics: Dental, Oral, and Craniofacial Research Training Program (BIG DOC) cohort shared findings during an Aug. 11 poster presentation, after which select students were presented Research Excellence Awards; see below for the complete list.

“Feedback from BIG DOC participants over the past three summers underscores that practical computational research experience is an important tool to enhance learning in genomics fields, and helps shape their commitment to science careers. Several scholars have expressed an interest in furthering their training in a Ph.D. or combined D.D.S/Ph.D. program at a top university,” said Dr. Karolina Kaczor Urbanowicz, who served as the 2023 BIG DOC program coordinator.

"This is vital, given concern about the science pipeline in the U.S. and the continued growth in racial and ethnic diversity, which our program directly addresses.”

BIG DOC students worked hands-on in the labs of School of Dentistry or School of Medicine faculty members and were paired with direct research mentors. Three members of the School of Dentistry Community received Outstanding Mentorship Awards: First-year oral biology Ph.D. candidate Irene Choi (Wong Lab), Associate Professor Jimmy Hu, and Ph.D. candidate Leah Ye, M.S., D.D.S., who works in Hu’s Lab.

“I am so thankful for my three mentees, Chase McGill, Alice Yu, and Gauri Vanjari, who made my first experience as a mentor an amazing one,” said Choi. “Through this program, I had a lot of fun teaching these bright individuals about my expertise in cell-free DNA within plasma as a form of cancer detection. We all demonstrated excellent teamwork to uncover our findings of biomarker potential in mitochondrial cell-free DNA. I cannot wait to see what more they can accomplish!”

For McGill, a Cornell University third-year biology major who earned one of the coveted Research Excellence Awards, working alongside Choi, Dr. Kaczor Urbanowicz, and Dr. David Wong was an invaluable experience.

“This project taught me the methodology behind conducting actual research while letting me combine my biology background with newly gained computational skills to actualize a new discovery in an up-and-coming field,” said McGill. “Irene was there for us every step of the way. She took the time to work with each of us to ensure that the project went smoothly and that we had the opportunity to be independent and grow as researchers. This project absolutely would not have been possible without her, and for that I am grateful.”

In addition to their day-to-day projects advancing knowledge of the human genome, cohort members participated in several activities to enrich their summer experience in Westwood. There were workshops on utilizing data science software such as Python and R, applying for graduate school, and how to present research, as well as social gatherings.

Funded by a $1.6 million grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research – a division of the National Institutes of Health – in January 2021, BIG DOC is a research training program that was created to meet the demand for professionals and researchers who come from varied backgrounds and possess robust expertise in data science. Students who belong to racial and ethnic groups that are not adequately represented in biomedical research, individuals with disabilities, and those from less privileged backgrounds are among the students selected for this highly competitive program.

The BIG DOC initiative is part of a multidisciplinary Bruins in Genomics Summer (BIG Summer) program chaired by Dr. Alexander Hoffmann and coordinated by UCLA’s Institute for Quantitative and Computational Biosciences. Campus-wide, 49 scholars were selected from more than 420 applicants.

2023 BIG DOC Research Excellence Award Winners


Home Institution

UCLA Faculty Mentor

Direct Mentor(s)

Sophia Choi

Vassar College

Hung Ton That

Dana Franklin and Yi-Wei Chen

James Evans

Middle Tennessee State University

Paul Boutros*

Zhuyu Qiu and Jee Han

Radha Ganesh

San Jose State University

Nandita Garud*

Ricky Wolff and Michael Wasney

Amaan Jogia-Sattar

UC Berkeley


Qiu and Han

Chase McGill

Cornell University

David Wong

Karolina Kaczor- Urbanowicz and Irene Choi

Diane Nguyen

UC Riverside

Ton That

Franklin and Chen

Noe Reyna

University of Texas at Austin


Roni Haas and Nicholas Wang

Gauri Vanjari



Karolina Kaczor- Urbanowicz and Irenę Choi

Yuchen (Amy) Wang

Research Excellence Award

Jimmy Hu

Leah Ye

Alice Yu

University of Central Florida


Karolina Kaczor- Urbanowicz and Irenę Choi

Sunny Yu

Rice University

Alireza Moshavarinia

Weihao Yuan

* Indicates faculty colleagues in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA