Whitney Zhang did not begin research until her junior year, but it quickly became a vital part of her undergraduate experience. She has found that the skills and approach to learning she has gained through her research have carried over into all aspects of her education. Whitney’s goal is to become a physician, and she feels that her clinical research has given her a clear picture of the relationship between the information she has gained in her classes and her ability to use that information to treat patients. She has developed a true passion for her research, and UROP is pleased to recognize her for that passion.

1. What is your specific area of research (include the name of your faculty and/or laboratory)?

My area of research is primarily focused on patient outcomes of those diagnosed with prostate cancer and is under the direction of faculty mentor Dr. Thomas Ahlering in the Department of Urology at UCI Medical Center. Specifically, the project I am working on is a study that emphasizes the need to integrate a novel imaging technique, called (68)-Ga PSMA PET/CT scan, into our present standard of care. It is both more sensitive and more specific than the current golden standard in detecting biochemical recurrences of prostate cancer, proving to be a valuable tool for physicians.

2. When and how did you first get involved in research?

Being a Biological Sciences major, I was told since freshman year to get involved with research, but it was due to my own naiveté that I did not develop an interest for research until winter quarter of my junior year. At this time, I remember scouring the Bio199 website, looking frantically for a research lab, but still purposefully choosing clinical research because I wanted to expand my experiences working with both patients and medical professionals. I came across an opening on Dr. Ahlering’s team. I emailed the clinical research coordinator listed, got interviewed, and was notified a week later that I was selected to join his research team.

3. How has research enhanced your education?

Research has enhanced my education in more ways than I could’ve imagined. As expected, it has helped me to become both a better reader and writer. Through research I have learned how to not only more efficiently read scientific papers, but have also improved my writing skills through the extensive amount of writing opportunities extended to me. Better still, it also taught me the importance of fully applying myself to each and every situation I encounter as a student, regardless of its perceived simplicity. Often times, simple tasks are overlooked, but there can be something learned from those tasks. Initially my contribution into our team’s research seemed very mundane; I was merely inputting data onto an excel sheet. I did not realize the importance of this until I received my first project, when it quickly dawned on me the significance of the copious amounts of data entry I was doing. Integrating the large databases and pulling information needed for a specific study required me to know every aspect of the databases, which I was only able to learn through inputting data. This realization has helped me to become a better student, as I am more aware of how each and every step in the learning process is important in its own way to the end goal, allowing me to be more present in every situation I encounter.

4. What has been your favorite experience with research (include any interesting stories or specific events)?

My favorite experience with research thus far is when I got the opportunity to play with the DaVinci robot, a surgical device used for minimally invasive surgery, and teach this device to high school students. This day is memorable not only because I got to play with a 1.5 million dollar state of the art robot, but also because it was my first time communicating knowledge I had gained through research to others. I instructed the students to use the robot to thread a piece of string through the tiny loops that were set up for them. Some succeeded, some failed, but you could see the enjoyment on all of their faces as they were handling the robot.

5. What are your future plans and how has being involved in research helped to prepare you to meet your goals?

My future goal is to become a physician, so being involved with clinical research directly helps me prepare for my future aspirations. To me, one of the most important roles of a physician is to be the liaison between curative science and the patient; therefore knowing how the two intertwine is integral. Working with my mentor, I have also been able to observe the emphasis he puts into bettering patient care and quality of life, even if it means challenging standards. This characteristic of my mentor and the way he practices medicine really resonates with me and exemplifies how I hope to practice one day.

6. What advice would you give to a student interested in pursuing a faculty-mentored undergraduate research project or creative activity?

I suggest starting early and going into it with the intent to learn because you will be faced with a steep learning curve in the beginning. While it can be challenging trying to overcome this learning curve when also balancing school and a job, it should not deter you from joining, as research has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had at UCI. As with anything new, time and dedication will help you overcome this hardship. As it is often said, what you put in is what you will get out, and this saying has not held more truth for me than with research.

Past Researchers of the Month

Dec. '19 Aneesah Syeda Akbar
Nov. '19 Jennifer Fong
Oct. '19 Amanda Woodworth
Sep. '19 Yvette Sanders
Aug. '19 Amber Marie Obenshain
Jul. '19 Gurleen Samra
Jun. '19 Yiwei Gong
May. '19 William Gerald Smith
Apr. '19 Emeizmi Mandagi
Mar. '19 Whitney Zhang
Feb. '19 William Agnew
Jan. '19 Sarah Mahoney