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Shaped by Mentorship: Promising Malaysian conservationist chosen as Ngaruiya Family Fund for Undergraduate Research recipient

Created by the Drs. Katherine and Christine Ngaruiya, alumnae of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Ngaruiya Family Fund for Undergraduate Research supports undergraduate mentorship and research in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. The scholarship is founded on five virtues: blended international experiences, cultural adaptation, courage, leaps of faith in pursuit of dreams and the importance of connections – specifically mentorship.

Joevy Sum (left) and Dr. Kristi Montooth
Joevy Sum (left) and Dr. Kristi Montooth (right) during the Evolution Meeting in Rhode Island, July 2019.
The 2021 awardee, Jia Yin (Joevy) Sum encompasses all of those virtues. As a senior student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from Malaysia, majoring in Biological Sciences with a minor in Fisheries and Wildlife, Sum had never been exposed to research before coming to Nebraska. Her first introduction to research was through taking Dr. Kristi Montooth’s Life 121 class, which led to her being offered a spot in Dr. Montooth’s lab, where she began working a year later. She has worked in the Montooth Lab and has been a mentee of Dr. Montooth for two years now. This lab uses physiology to understand how organisms fit to their ecologies and how evolution shapes genetic and biochemical pathways that lead to physiological changes to an organism.

Sum’s research is titled: “Uncoupling proteins as a physiological defense mechanism in Drosophila.” This research hopes to understand how insects may cope with the effects of climate change. Uncoupling proteins have been well-studied in mammals and are responsible for producing heat during hibernation. Sum and Montooth are trying to figure out the function (why) and activation mechanism (how) of these proteins in Drosophila, also known as fruit flies. Their hypothesis is that uncoupling proteins are expressed in response to oxidative stress as a defense mechanism in the mitochondria of these insects. In the bigger picture, with climate change, many ectotherms such as insects will be facing increased physiological stress and they would like to know how they will cope with these effects.

Since beginning her position in the Montooth Lab, Sum has learned research skills such as bioinformatics, the evolution of genes, statistics, and translating data to graphical analysis. The lab has also provided Sum with several opportunities to attend conferences; she attended her first conference in 2019, the Evolution Meeting in Rhode Island with Dr. Montooth. This shared experience was especially impactful for the mentor/mentee pair, as the Evolution Meeting was also Dr. Montooth’s first conference experience many years prior, and where she had decided to become a biologist. Since this conference, Sum says she has “soaked up every second” of other conferences she has attended – for example, the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, where she was excited to convene with other scientists who shared her experiences and looked like her.

Shortly before the COVID-19 epidemic, Sum was able to visit her home country of Malaysia to meet a Malaysian scientist with a nonprofit for the conservation of freshwater turtles. The chance to see conservation efforts in Malaysia was very valuable for Sum. “If she can do it, I can probably do it, too.”

Working in Dr. Montooth’s lab has not only given Sum more knowledge of research and science, but also has given her female role models in STEM. Sum says that having Dr. Montooth and Dr. Omera Matoo as her mentors has “shaped me, guided me, and given me patience.” She says that her lab is a diverse environment where her personal identity is understood. The respect is mutual. Dr. Montooth describes their lab as a “scientific family” and describes Sum as a “pleasure to work with" and truly believes mentorship should be a two-way relationship.

Through the generosity of the Ngaruiya Family and friends who contributed to the Ngaruiya Undergraduate Research Fund, Sum is able to focus on writing her thesis and working on analyzing research data instead of worrying about providing for herself, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. As Dr. Montooth recognizes “research is a full-time job.” Sum will be graduating this May and is evaluating whether to pursue research internships or attend graduate school.

If you believe in the five virtues the Ngaruiya family envisioned and would like to contribute to the Ngaruiya Family Fund for Undergraduate Research, please contact the University of Nebraska Foundation at 402-458-1100. The International Student and Scholar Office would like to thank the scholarship committee for their work in selecting this year’s candidate.

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