Big Boost for the Bench

Seeking to diversify the sciences, USC has become the first Platinum Sponsor for SACNAS’ national conference to be held this year in Los Angeles, Oct. 15 through 18.
ByPamela J. Johnson

For Beatriz “Abril” Lopez-Bermudez, advancing energy efficiency is a cause near and dear.

Growing up in Ayotla, a suburb of Mexico City, her family home and entire neighborhood were often without electricity for days at a time. A touch of bad weather, a tremor or poor installation would trigger blackouts.

“I always wondered, ‘Why can’t I play outside, why can’t I watch T.V.?’ ”

She later learned about electricity network failures. As a USC Dornsife undergraduate, she was drawn to the energy field. But she knew at a young age she wanted to be a chemist. At age 6, her older brothers got chemistry sets for Christmas.

“I was really curious about it because they wouldn’t let me play,” Lopez-Bermudez recalled. “So I had to make my own games. Copying what they were doing inspired me to understand what was going on.”

Now a chemistry major, she works in Brent Melot’s laboratory, conducting research on producing safer, higher-voltage and more compact batteries. When she knew she wanted to work on energy research, she was given Melot’s name. She took the initiative to email him and visit his lab.

“I was impressed,” Melot, assistant professor of chemistry, said of meeting Lopez-Bermudez. “She has real drive and curiosity. She was excited about what we were doing. It was a no-brainer to have her join our group.”

In addition to teaching Lopez-Bermudez about science, Melot is helping her to advance her career. As the faculty adviser for the USC chapter of Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), Melot encouraged Lopez-Bermudez to get involved in the organization’s upcoming national conference.

A Native American whose grandfather was born on the Citizen Potawatomi Nation reservation in Shawnee, Oklahoma, Melot feels strongly about diversifying the sciences.

“It’s crucial to bring people with different experiences to the table,” he said. “The more creative you can get with solving a problem, the better. The more varied backgrounds in a group, the better.”

The 2014 SACNAS National Conference “Creativity, Vision and Drive: Toward Full Representation in STEM” takes place this year in Los Angeles, Oct. 15 through 18. It will be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, two Metro stops north of USC’s University Park campus.

SACNAS is a society of scientists dedicated to fostering the success of Latino and Native American scientists. The group helps college students, postdoctoral researchers and professionals attain advanced degrees, careers and leadership positions in science.

USC is the first Platinum Sponsor for the conference, expected to draw 5,000 students, postdoctoral researchers and professors.

George Sanchez, USC Dornsife vice dean of diversity and strategic initiatives, helped to found the USC-SACNAS chapter. He said the four-day event will encourage students such as Lopez-Bermudez.

“For many of our students and faculty, this conference is a wonderful opportunity to walk into a room and see diverse people who are absolutely committed to science and scientific research,” Sanchez said. “It gets you past the stereotype that somehow minority students aren’t interested in science, or that there aren’t potential minority faculty that we can hire, or postdoctoral researchers and Ph.D. students who we can’t encourage.”

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Beatriz “Abril” Lopez-Bermudez’s role is synthesizing new materials, determining their structure and ability to move through lithium-ion.

Representatives from USC Dornsife, as well as the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, will have a strong presence in the convention center’s exhibit hall, where they will be on-hand throughout the conference to offer information on USC programs in the sciences.

Charles McKenna, vice dean for natural sciences and mathematics at USC Dornsife, said problems in science are ever-changing and challenging, and solving them requires the mobilization our society’s full intellectual resources.

“The effort to increase diversity among scientists can be viewed as a logical approach to this goal,” said McKenna, who will give welcoming remarks at the Oct. 15 reception. “Talented minority students need to be encouraged and welcomed in choosing STEM degrees over their other opportunities. In turn, increased diversity in the scientific community will provide more role models for such students so the process can be self-reinforcing.”

On Oct. 15 at 7 p.m., USC will kick off its participation in the conference by hosting a reception at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, where attendees will meet USC faculty, students and administrators.  

On Oct. 16, undergraduates will tour USC facilities ranging from the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations headquarters to Sarah Feakins’s earth sciences lab. USC will also lead a research cruise for participants on the San Pedro Ocean T-series (SPOT), a systematic long-term study on the physical and biogeochemical cycles in the San Pedro Basin.

“I’m keen to open the doors of my lab to students who are interested and motivated to learn,” Feakins said. “Cutting-edge scientific research can sound intimidating, something other people do. But if you look into a lab, you’ll find people just like you who do science, and then you can figure out how you can, too.”

On Oct. 17, at 8:30 a.m., at the Los Angeles Convention Center, a USC alumnus, graduate students, faculty and administrators will lead a professional development session. Following USC Dornsife Dean Steve Kay’s remarks to attendees at the luncheon, USC undergraduate and graduate students will present research posters beginning at 3:30 p.m.

Joining student presenters from the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, will be USC Dornsife undergraduates Lopez-Bermudez, Jordan Hoese, Danny Lee, Jung-Gi Min, Bella Nguyen, Eugene Shin, Sophia Singh, and Vickie Trinh as well as graduate students Priscilla Antunez and Helen Foley.

On Oct. 18, Family Engagement Day at the convention center will provide an opportunity for kindergarten through high school students in USC partner schools to meet participants.

With Melot’s guidance, Lopez-Bermudez will share her research on lithium-ion batteries during the conference. Melot’s group is working on finding safer solid electrolytes that can replace the flammable liquids currently used in batteries.

Lopez-Bermudez’s role is to synthesize new materials, determining their structure and ability to move through lithium-ion. She’s looking for a solid material that can transport through lithium-ion as efficiently as a liquid.

“Abril is doing outstanding,” Melot said. “She started off working with graduate students, but now works independently.”

Lopez-Bermudez is excited about sharing her research at the conference and looks forward to meeting Latina scientists.

Right now, the aspiring chemist thinks of her future self as her own role model.

“Young Latinas studying to become scientists may not have many female role models around them,” Lopez-Bermudez said. “But they can strive to become a role model for the next generation. They can be that example they may not have right now.”

She was grateful to have found great mentors.

“I’ve been very lucky with the people I’ve been surrounded with,” she said. “They’ve offered me excellent opportunities.”

A senior, Lopez-Bermudez looks forward to graduate school and a career as a chemist. She is adamant that she was “pushed into chemistry by my brothers who kept telling me ‘no.’ ”

In years to come, when she looks back to herself as a girl not allowed to play with chemistry sets, she can just walk into her lab.

Award Winners

The 2014 SACNAS Undergraduate Student Poster Presentation Award recipients from USC included:

  • Beatriz “Abril” Lopez-Bermudez of USC Dornsife under chemistry.
  • Francisco Romero of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering under computer/systems engineering.

The 2014 SACNAS Graduate Student Oral Presentation Award winner from USC was Priscilla Antunez of USC Dornsife under chemistry.