Three students earn national minority research awards

By Beverly Makhani, Undergraduate Education

PULLMAN, Wash. – Three undergraduate researchers at Washington State University recently won national awards for presentations at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) in Seattle.

Matz, left, Cortez and Conyers with awards.

They are seniors Raven Conyers, from Lynnwood, Luis Cortez, from Othello, and sophomore Keesha Matz, from Chehalis. Read a more detailed version of this article at

The three students were able to participate in the conference thanks to support from the Scott and Linda Carson Undergraduate Research Endowed Excellence Fund. The Carsons are WSU alumni who have support the university generously with their service and financial gifts.

ABRCMS is supported by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Nearly 1,900 students were chosen to present research in 14 scientific disciplines, attend workshops and meet representatives from universities and businesses.

Helping others heal

Conyers is majoring in genetics and cell biology, will attend the WSU College of Pharmacy next year and plans to specialize in molecular pharmacology in a research setting, using her “skills to help others recover from illness.”

Her research involved the nonparasitic worm C. elegans, a popular model organism in labs because it is easy to grow and has similar genes to humans. To inhibit its reproduction, many labs use the cancer drug FUdR on the worms. Conyers sought to find whether the drug alters the worm’s metabolism and, therefore, might be used in aging experiments.

She found that FUdR alters the fatty acid composition in the worms, which may significantly affect the outcomes of aging studies.

Transferring health research into practice

Cortez is double majoring in biochemistry plus genetics and cell biology and plans to become a physician with a Ph.D in order to “research human health issues and also transfer my lab discoveries into practice,” he said.

He investigates a family of enzymes (APOBEC) that exist in mammalian cells and damage viruses that have invaded the cell as part of an innate immune response. But the enzymes can also latch onto the cell’s own DNA and cause damaging mutations, potentially leading to and exacerbating cancers.

The work was recently published in the journal Cell Reports. See a WSU News article about the research at

Fighting a deadly virus

Matz is majoring in microbiology and plans a career as a virology researcher at a government institution such as the National Institutes of Health or a biotechnology company.

She has worked on two projects looking at the interactions of three proteins that affect how a virus – in this case, Nipah virus publicized in the 2011 movie “Contagion” – replicates and exits a host cell to spread infection.

Results from her work could lead to treatments for the Nipah virus, perhaps in the form of a vaccine or novel drug.