First Roth Research Award recipient broadens horizons after summer research experience

Published: Sep 22, 2023

a glass vial with fruit flies inside and about a dozen eppendorf flasks on a black countertop; many more vials in a red plastic holder in the background, and more eppendorf flasks in a teal container.
Fruit flies like the ones in this vial in Fernando Vonhoff's lab, are an important model organism for studying a wide range of genetic and molecular processes. (Image by Marlayna Demond '11/UMBC)

Inioluwa Oluseyi has wanted to be a neurosurgeon as long as she can remember. She didn’t anticipate how much fly husbandry would play a role in her reaching her goal. In a fall 2022 genetics class with Fernando Vonhoff, “He talked about how his lab works on flies to answer questions related to neurological issues, so that just immediately clicked for me,” says Oluseyi, a biological sciences junior.

She talked to Vonhoff, an assistant professor of biological sciences, after class about opportunities. He gave her a tour of the lab the following week, and she started working with his research group soon thereafter. In the fall and spring, Oluseyi gained skills in fly husbandry, dissection, and common testing protocols. 

Vonhoff was impressed with her progress, and it was clear that by summer Oluseyi would be ready to take on her own project. Vonhoff suggested she apply for research scholarships, including the new Thomas F. Roth Research Award.

Roth joined the UMBC faculty in 1972 and helped get the fledgling university off the ground. He was instrumental in forging the culture of collegiality in the biological sciences department that continues today. Roth passed away in 2021, and his sons Kurt and Peter Roth established the research award in his memory.

Oluseyi is an international student from Nigeria, and she was happy to learn that she was eligible for the Roth award. Many scholarships are limited to U.S. citizens or permanent residents. “I was so excited,” she recalls. “Finally, I had this opportunity to apply to.”

woman in green sits at a lab bench, looking at the camera--she is a Roth award recipient for summer research.
Inioluwa Oluseyi is thrilled to be pursuing biological research with Fernando Vonhoff and plans to pursue graduate work. (Image courtesy of Oluseyi)

Pushing her thinking

Oluseyi is the first recipient of the Thomas F. Roth Research Award. She also successfully applied for a UMBC Undergraduate Research Award (URA) for the 2023 – 2024 academic year based on her work in Vonhoff’s lab. Her URA proposal builds on her Roth-funded summer research and outlines experiments to study the behavioral responses of flies to pain, including whether experiencing pain changes their preference for plain versus ethanol-laced apple juice, or if it affects their mobility or feeding and mating patterns.

This summer, she bred the flies needed for her fall experiments. She also supported testing on flies with altered genes, for a project led by Ph.D. student Claudia Gualtieri, to learn how those genes are involved in various behaviors. “Ini has always been willing to go the extra mile,” Gualtieri says. “She was eager to learn despite challenges, and she did all of this while bringing a contagious smile into the lab,” Gualtieri says.

Oluseyi’s summer experiences funded by the Roth award “made me push my thinking,” she says, and may lead to changes in the project she proposed for her URA.

“I think I want to broaden my horizons,” Oluseyi says. “My research proposal was very much behavioral, but now I want to refine it and go deeper into the gene level.” 

Growing relationships, setting goals

Spending so much time in the lab over the summer also afforded opportunities to enrich her relationships with labmates and think deeply about her future. “I branched out and talked to a lot of new people and learned what they were studying,” Oluseyi says. “That helped me to improve my scientific thinking.”

Her connection with Vonhoff also shifted. “Now we’ve talked more and connected in a different way,” Oluseyi says. “Before I saw him as my supervisor, but now I see him as a mentor—someone I can come to if I need anything.”

Two people in lab coats and gloves in a laboratory; a microscope, vials containing flies, and  a computer sit on the counter.
Fernando Vonhoff (right) and Abby Cruz ’17, biological sciences, discuss their research in Vonhoff’s laboratory. (Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

Those conversations covered the immediate work in the lab as well as Oluseyi’s longer-term goals. Originally, she was planning on medical school. Now that she knows she enjoys research and has discussed her options with Vonhoff, Gualtieri, and others in the lab, the M.D./Ph.D. path toward life as a physician-scientist is appealing.

“Inioluwa is a living example of how access to research opportunities can be a transformative experience for growing young minds,” Vonhoff says. “From the beginning, it was obvious that Ini was driven by her intellectual curiosity and passion to make meaningful contributions to our society.”

A cool connection

The Roth award made these developments possible, but her connection to Roth extends beyond receiving support for her studies. In her spring 2023 cell biology class, around the time she was applying for the Roth award, Oluseyi was learning about coated pits—structures on a cell’s surface that help it take in large molecules. She also learned who discovered these pits: Thomas Roth

Roth made the discovery as a graduate student under Keith R. Porter at Harvard University. Later in his career, Porter became a professor at UMBC, and UMBC’s Keith R. Porter Imaging Facility bears his name.

“When I found out about that, I told everybody—‘What we’re learning about is by this person!’” Oluseyi says. “It was so cool.”

Pursuing her dreams

Oluseyi’s research has not progressed as quickly as she hoped, mostly due to unexpected flooding in UMBC’s biology building last winter, but even the challenges became a learning experience. “My biggest takeaway from this summer is that research doesn’t always go as you want it to go,” she says. “But even if it changed, I liked what I did. I got to explore other things and learn more about flies in general.”

And the experience has paved the way for future work—which will certainly be full of both challenges and successes. “The Roth family’s generosity has made it possible for me to pursue my dreams,” Oluseyi says. “I’m looking forward to starting the URA project this semester.”

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