MARC@UHM scholar, Alaskan Native, shines in plant research, earns SACNAS recognition

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Two years ago, Alena Albertson, an undergraduate student majoring in molecular biosciences and biotechnology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UHM), did not think it would have been possible to travel and present her research at a national conference, let alone, have sufficient time to dedicate to academic science but the opportunities unfolded through the John A. Burns School of Medicine’s Maximizing Access to Research Careers at UHM Program (MARC@UHM).

Having to work to support herself financially through college led Albertson to worry early on that she would not be able to pursue her interests in research due to lack of time. Her mentor, Dr. David Christopher, chair and professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering, encouraged her to apply for the MARC@UHM Program and that moment was life-changing for her.

“They are pretty much 100% why I have these opportunities,” Albertson said of the MARC@UHM Program. “ Additionally, the program does great work helping with professional career development type of workshops. And I think that's why I was able to present really well at SACNAS– it was because of how much of an opportunity they've given me to present my research beforehand.”

In October, Albertson was awarded for her research and presentation skills by the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). She was recognized at the SACNAS 2023 National Diversity in STEM Conference in Portland, Oregon in October. She was overjoyed at the chance to meet one-on-one with the SACNAS President Charla Lambert, PhD, and bonded over their shared Alaska Native heritage. 

Check out our exclusive Q&A with Alena Albertson below. And for more information about the Marc@UHM program, go to their website.

Alena Albertson in the lab. Courtesy photo.
Alena Albertson in the lab. Courtesy photo.


Q: Alena, it’s so great to meet you. Congratulations! First of all, can you tell us more about your research?

A: My research is conducted on Arabidopsis which is like a model organism for plants, and it's usually used for agricultural-type research. It's kind of the equivalent of using mice before doing research on humans. So with Arabidopsis, we're identifying how plants respond to heat stress, an area of concern in our warming climate.

Right now we are studying the Unfolded Protein Response (UPR). The UPR is a mechanism that the plants activate under heat stress in hopes of regaining homeostasis. This stress response activates and upregulates certain proteins. Currently, we think the main protein involved in the heat stress response is protein-disulfide-isomerase 9 (PDI9), a protein that refolds denatured proteins, allowing them to regain function. To verify the role of PDI9 we create a variety of mutant plants, such as ones that overexpress the protein and plants that do not express PDI9, We can then chemically induce heat stress and analyze how the plant responds. 

Basically, if we identify the major contributors to the plant heat stress response, we can then manipulate protein expression to make more heat tolerant plants. I think this knowledge will be really important in the future to address feeding our growing population in the face of climate change. I'd like to give a special thanks to my mentors Dr. David Christopher and Ph.D. candidate Rina Carrillo.

Q: What inspired you to pursue this area of research?

A: I think I orient everything around in my life and what I want to dedicate my career to after I graduate is research on sustainability. I guess that strongly correlates to my Native Alaskan roots. Ever since I was a kid, I was taught to really care for the environment. I was taught that if you're dealing with stress or if you don’t feel well, you go outside and that just makes you feel better. I've always been pretty connected with nature and so I want to take care of it. That’s what has inspired me. 

Q: Can you share more about where you are from and your Alaska Native roots?

A:I grew up in Austin, Texas and I am Inuit or Inupiaq to be more specific. I'm from the native village of Shungnak. I was originally on the track team and that’s what brought me here to UH Mānoa. I’ve always loved the environment and learning about the research opportunities at UH helped me focus on my passions and interests.

Q: You had the opportunity to be mentored by SACNAS President Dr. Charla Lambert! What was the experience like?

A: The students were able to request a one-on-one mentoring session with different leaders in science at the Diversity in STEM Conference. I filled out a questionnaire beforehand of my career interests and things like that and they paired up as many students and leaders as they could. I happened to be paired up with the president of SACNAS because we both share Alaska Native heritage. She was from an island in Alaska and so it was really neat to connect with her. It’s not very often that you meet another Alaska Native outside of Alaska. 

Q: I imagine that must have been so exciting for you!

A: Yes, Dr. Lambert gave me awesome advice. Right now I’m at a pivotal point in my academic career as I’m about to graduate with my undergraduate degree in molecular biosciences and biotechnology. It’s a turning point that gives me a little bit of anxiety and I have to make decisions about where I want to continue my studies. There are a lot of factors that play into that outside of academics, for example I have an amazing friend group here, people that are so supportive. I told Dr. Lambert about my predicament and she just reminded me that academics isn’t everything. She told me that I should choose to be around people that make me really happy and make me feel like family. It was nice to hear that kind of input from a really successful woman scientist.

Q: How much of an impact has the MARC@UHM Program had on your undergraduate career?
A: They are pretty much 100% why I have these opportunities. MARC@UHM focuses on maximizing access to research for minorities and people from diverse backgrounds. I work to support myself financially and when I started doing research as a sophomore, I was about to give it up because I didn’t think I had enough time to do it. But now, as a MARC scholar, I am able to do research as a part time job. Additionally, the program does great work helping with professional career development type of workshops. And I think that's why I was able to present really well at SACNAS– it was because of how much of an opportunity they've given me to present my research beforehand. 

I am incredibly grateful to the MARC@UHM Program. Two years ago, I didn’t ever think I would be able to go on a conference trip. It seems like a dream come true: being able to travel and invest so much time into science that I’m really interested in. I’m really thankful that the MARC@UHM exists and I hope more undergrads can discover it and apply for it. And it’s not just the faculty that have impacted me, it’s also all of the other scholars. It’s nice seeing them around campus and I feel like I’ve met a good group of friends through the program. It’s also neat because at our monthly meetings we present updates on our research. There’s such a diverse variety of research topics so I get to learn about so many different things and it’s also great hearing it from other students that are so passionate about what they’re studying.