Congratulations to students in the School of Molecular & Cellular Biology who were chosen to participate in the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Institute’s Community-Academic Scholars Initiative. The initiative offers University of Illinois undergraduate students the opportunity to pursue community-based research projects in Champaign-Urbana over the summer.

Scholars from disciplines across campus work with a faculty mentor and a mentor from a community organization to address critical issues related to health, poverty, and/or social inequality. Each scholar will contribute to a research project designed to directly benefit community members served by the partner organization. The 2021 Community-Academic Scholars cohort represents 16 majors in seven colleges.

The following MCB students were chosen this year: Paola Ahumada, Muskaan Sawhney, Royal Shrestha, and Sharbel Yako.

During the 10-week program, students develop applied research skills for measuring and maximizing impact in their work. Scholars come together each week for a coffee hour and facilitated discussion. Invited speakers provide practical guidance to the group, covering topics such as conducting research in community settings, the value of team-based science, and presenting research to different audiences. The program concludes with students showcasing their work at a final awards ceremony.

You can read more about the MCB students and their projects below and about the 2021 cohort on the IHSI website.

Paola Ahumada is a junior majoring in molecular and cellular biology (MCB) and minoring in chemistry and Spanish. She is working toward a career as a medical doctor. As an undergraduate, Paola has volunteered in the community with Driven to Reach Excellence and Academic Achievement for Males (DREAAM) and the Champaign County Christian Health Center. She is currently working in Professor Sandraluz Lara-Cinisomo’s lab. As a Community-Academic Scholar, Paola will continue to work with Professor Lara-Cinisomo and the Caregiver Advisory for Research Engagement (CARE) Team at Chez Veterans Center to understand the changing needs of older caregivers to identify interventions and services to reduce the long-term negative effects of caregiving. Learn more about her project.

Muskaan Sawhney is a junior in the MCB Honors Program with minors in chemistry and psychology. Since coming to Illinois, Muskaan has served as a tutor in the Office of Minority Student Affairs, as an undergraduate researcher in Professor Hannah Holscher’s lab, and as an executive manager for Illinois Enactus. She plans to pursue a career in medicine and to advocate for a greater emphasis on preventive care through the integration of genetics and technology. This summer, Muskaan will work with Professor Manabu Nakamura and Avicenna Community Health Center to deliver a sustainable, cost-effective, and community-based dietary-focused weight loss management program to local, low-income patients who are overweight or obese. Learn more about her project.

Royal Shrestha is a sophomore in the MCB Honors Program minoring in chemistry and computer science. As an Illinois student, he has been involved in the community volunteering for several organizations, including DREAAM. Royal has conducted research as part of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team and as an undergraduate research assistant in the Qiao Lab. He plans to pursue a career in clinical research. As a Community-Academic Scholar, Royal will work with Professor Melissa Goodnight and Professor Cherie Avent, and the Champaign Urbana Public Health District to address racial health disparities in African American faith-based communities in Champaign and Urbana to explore the impact COVID-19 has had on wellbeing and education. Learn more about his project.

Sharbel Yako is a sophomore majoring in MCB and minoring in chemistry and Arabic studies, with plans to become a medical doctor. While at Illinois, Sharbel has co-founded Mentors in Medicine, a student organization that mentors first-year premed students. He works as an undergraduate research assistant in Professor Raksha Mudar’s lab. This summer, Sharbel will continue his work with Professor Mudar and CJE Senior Life to test the benefits of technology-based social engagement using a video-technology platform called OneClick in older adults with and without mild cognitive impairment. Learn more about his project.

Scholars were selected from a pool of nearly 100 applicants for possessing the skills needed to work on the project, their personal connections to and passion for the issues their projects address, and for the many ways they have already made an impact on campus and in the community. Several students are James and Chancellor’s scholars who have worked in labs across campus. Many scholars also volunteer in the community, organize events and programming to promote a greater understanding of social justice issues, and serve in leadership roles in their student organizations.

The initiative is sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Institute, in partnership with the Center for Social and Behavioral Science and with support from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion. The scholars will bring their experiences to the work they are doing this summer with faculty mentors and community partners to address a range of topics, including the impacts of COVID-19 on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), poverty and social inequality, nutrition, physical activity, social-emotional learning, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) health, technology and aging, health disparities, veterans’ issues, and the role that forest preserves play in community and individual health.