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School of Molecular Sciences and Barrett student blends biochemistry, music

Sabrina Leung

Barrett, The Honors College and School of Molecular Sciences junior Sabrina Leung.

January 29, 2019

Editor's note: This profile is part of a series of profiles showcasing students in the School of Molecular Sciences.

School of Molecular Sciences junior Sabrina Leung, a major in biochemistry and minor in Spanish literary and cultural studies, aspires to attend medical school after graduation in 2020. Through her curiosity and love for science, Leung has been able to create the experience she wanted in her college education. Leung credits her professors with providing the “out of the box” opportunities that helped her grow in ways she didn't expect. As a Barrett, The Honors College scholar, she has had multidisciplinary work and education opportunities in research, science writing and internships.

“Being able to work in labs here, I get to see the real world impact researchers are making,” Leung said. “These researchers and their work are going to change the world.”  

As an incoming freshman, Leung was recognized as a New American University Scholar — an award given to outstanding freshmen as they pursue academic excellence at ASU. She is also a National Merit Scholar — a program that identifies and honors scholastically talented American youth and encourages them to develop their abilities to the fullest. The recognition and support has helped Leung on her journey.

At present, Leung is doing research under Kevin Redding, using heliobacteria, a bacterial group that uses the simplest known reaction center for photosynthesis, to explore how photosynthesis may have evolved. While she is relatively new to the lab, she has already learned so much.

“Sabrina has done a great job in the lab, and has taken on a difficult project,” said Redding, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the School of Molecular Sciences. “She is gearing up to use the CRISPR/Cas system of heliobacteria to delete the genes of one of the membrane protein complexes involved in electron transport within the cell.” 

Leung used to think of music as just a hobby — she plays the cello and guitar — but Barrett Honors Professor Donald Fette supported her and a friend with help starting a new student organization called Music Meets Medicine. On Saturdays, they play music for patients at Hospice of the Valley. It has become a great way for Leung to combine her passions for medicine, music and getting involved with the community.

When she isn’t in class, doing research in a lab or playing music, Leung finds time to be a volunteer coordinator for the American Medical Student Association — the oldest and largest independent association of physicians-in-training in the United States.

Leung answered some questions about her experience at ASU, and where she’s headed next.

Question: During your time at the School of Molecular Sciences, what kind of undergraduate research did you do and what opportunities have you had?

Answer: I started research the summer before my freshman year at the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center under Dr. Douglas Walker and Dr. Lih-Fen Lue. There, I worked on Alzheimer’s disease research. They had me staining human brain tissues on my first day, right after I learned how to pipette for the first time. My first semester I completed my own project simulating how nutrient-rich conditions such as in Type II diabetes might affect TFEB protein expression in the brain, and that year I received the Barrett Gold Standard Award for research. The following summer, I worked with human epithelial cells from the choroid plexus of the brain, studying their secretions in response to inflammatory vs. anti-inflammatory mediators. Data from that study was included in a publication where I am a co-author.

Q: What is it like to be a Barrett student?  

A: Barrett, The Honors College has given me so many opportunities. With the Barrett Pre-Health Internship Program, I interned for a semester at Arizona Neurology Sleep Center, where I truly learned how to interact with patients and their families while keeping up with the fast pace of the clinic. The internship ended up turning into a job as a medical assistant during the summer.

My other experiences at Barrett have been more surprising. I used to think of writing as more of a side-interest to science, but my human event professor Dr. Jacquelyn Lynch encouraged me to apply for a job as a science writer for the ASU Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development. There, I have had the chance to interview researchers from all kinds of backgrounds — from microbiology to agribusiness and sustainability policy — and written feature stories publicizing their work. Now, I am working as a grant proposal editor at OKED. Learning from so many different researchers and seeing the grant proposal process up close has really helped me grow as a researcher myself.

Q: Why is it important that the school provide scholarships or awards for its majors?

A: SMSSchool of Molecular Sciences has always been really supportive of its students, and the scholarships and awards it provides show how much effort the school puts into recognizing and cultivating the talent it sees in its students. They really empower students to pursue their interests and make the most out of their time at ASU.

Q: Which women at ASU have inspired your during your studies?

A: Fortunately, at ASU I have been inspired by many women in science: one of my first (principal investigators) Dr. Lih Fen Lue; the first lab technician who mentored me, Tiffany; and my current lab coordinator Patricia Baker. Being surrounded by so many female role models at ASU has really empowered me as a woman in science. Even outside of science, Diane Boudreau and Danae Barnes, the team directors at my writing jobs, and Dr. Jacqueline Lynch, my human event professor who encouraged me to take the writing job, have been important role models.

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