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April 7: Carnegie Mellon Student Receives UNCF-Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholarship


Jocelyn Duffy

Carnegie Mellon Student Receives UNCF-Merck
Undergraduate Science Research Scholarship

Xochina El HilaliPITTSBURGH—Carnegie Mellon University junior Xochina El Hilali has received a prestigious 2010 United Negro College Fund/Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholarship in recognition of her outstanding work in biomedical research and her future potential. The award, one of only 15 given nationwide, consists of a $25,000 scholarship and two summer stipends totaling $10,000.

As a UNCF-Merck Undergraduate Fellow, El Hilali will participate in two internships, one this summer (2010) and one the summer following her graduation (2011), under the mentorship of a Merck scientist at a Merck Research Laboratory.

El Hilali, who is pursuing a bachelor's degree in chemistry, has for the past two years conducted research on the chemistry and biochemistry of RNA in the laboratory of Subha Das, an assistant professor of chemistry in the Mellon College of Science.

"During my first year at Carnegie Mellon, I wanted to try out research to see what it was like," El Hilali said. "After one semester in Dr. Das' lab, I realized that I really like research. I'm interested in going into pharmacologic research eventually, so the UNCF-Merck Scholarship is a perfect fit for me."

In Das' laboratory, El Hilali is investigating the hepatitis delta virus (HDV) ribozyme, an enzyme made of RNA that is critical for viral replication. El Hilali is substituting single atoms at key sites on the RNA to examine how the altered atomic interactions influence the ribozyme's activity. This work involves laborious and often tedious separations of RNAs that are different by only one atom, noted Das.

"The skills Xochina has developed and now practices with minimal to no supervision is enviable — and at the level of a graduate student," Das said. "She is a talented young woman who is an excellent researcher."

During the summer of 2009, she carried out her ribozyme research as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Summer Researcher in Das' lab. The HHMI Summer Researcher program allows students to participate in paid summer research, while maintaining the flexibility to take courses or participate in other activities.

In addition to pursuing a bachelor's degree in chemistry, El Hilali also is working toward an additional major in economics to explore her interests in economic theory. Additionally, she is part of the Science and Humanities Scholars Program (SHS), which includes a select group of students who have a strong interest in the pursuit of interdisciplinary breadth in their undergraduate experience. For El Hilali, this breadth extends beyond the classroom. At Carnegie Mellon she plays the clarinet in the All University Orchestra, performing in at least two concerts each year. El Hilali has played the clarinet since middle school and enjoys "being in the center of music. It is mathematical and artistic at the same time." She also has been an active participant in the activities of the Chemistry Department's Student Advisory Committee.

After her internship at a Merck laboratory this summer, El Hilali plans to continue working in the Das laboratory during her senior year and pursuing her interests in chemistry, biology and the business of science.

The UNCF-Merck Science Research Scholarship awards are intended to encourage the interest of African-American undergraduate students in furthering their science education and pursuing biomedical science careers by providing tuition support and opportunities for research experience in a state-of-the-art industrial laboratory, according to the UNCF-Merck Science Initiative Web site:


Pictured above is Xochina El Hilali, who has received a prestigious 2010 United Negro College Fund/Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholarship.