2019 Dottie Sams Scholarship Winners Emily Turner and Leslie Curiel

Emily Turner and Leslie Curiel Both Involved in Research


Emily Turner, Class of 2019

Losing family members to a disease related to aging is a common occurrence and one that motivates many students to pursue careers related to finding a cure for particular diseases. Emily Turner, MCB class of 2019, is not unique in her experience with watching her grandfather suffer from dementia and having her grandmother pass away from pancreatic cancer. “My story is not unusual” lamented Turner when I asked her about her research. “Disease is a ubiquitous part the human experience, causing suffering both to those afflicted and to their loved ones. While the most common diseases in our society—cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes - differ in their particular molecular cause, they share a commonality: all increase in prevalence with age.”  Emily Turner UA MCB Major

When Turner started at the UA, she hadn’t declared a major. She thought she wanted to go into pharmacology so she started pursuing a general biology degree. She took Intro to MCB in her sophomore year and enjoyed that class and then took MCB 304 and realized she was passionate about molecular and cellular biology. She switched her major to MCB and hasn’t looked back. She enjoys her MCB courses because “What I was learning in class was how to solve problems. I like to have to think about a problem and then recall what I learned in my courses and apply what I learned in new ways to solve a problem.” 

Turner served as Head Preceptor for Introduction to Biology 181 in 2017. It was in that role that Hope Dang, teaching assistant for this course, recognized that Turner would be an asset to a research lab. “I saw Emily organizing meetings, working and checking with the other preceptors to make sure everyone is doing well. She took initiative and really stood out to me. I knew she would be great working in a lab.” Dang recommended Turner to work in Dr. George Sutphin’s lab . Turner was one of Sutphin’s first undergraduate research assistants he hired in his lab when he arrived at the University of Arizona in January of 2018. Supthin’s research is focused on understanding the molecular basis of aging using tools in comparative and systems genetics.

Turner quickly immersed herself in the Sutphin lab’s research working to identify new molecular processes that can be targeted clinically to extend healthy human lifespan and treat or prevent a wide array of diseases associated with aging. Turner smiles when she talks about this research and her project. “One such process, identified by Dr. Sutphin in previous work, is tryptophan metabolism through the kynurenine pathway. He discovered that inhibiting several enzymes in this pathway can substantially increase lifespan in the nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans. I am working on understanding how the kynurenine pathway influences aging at the molecular level.”

Turner’s ambition to pursue biomedical research is driven by her personal experiences with loss, and the desire to prevent others from enduring the same hardships. “I aim to have a broader impact than only helping people with cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. By focusing my effort on understanding aging, I hope to drive both back, and develop ways to give people longer and healthier lives, regardless of their ailment.”

Turner is grateful for the $5000 provided by the Dottie Sams Scholarship. She graduates in May and will head directly in to the MCB Accelerated Master Program. The Dottie Sams Student Research Awards are made possible by the generous bequest of southern Arizona community member Dottie Sams, in support of women studying STEM subjects. “With Emily’s clear talent for bench work, optimistic outlook, and burgeoning passion for research, she will be a benefit to AMP <Accelerated Masters Program> and I look forward to her continued work in the lab as a Master’s student” said Dr. George Sutphin.

Congratulations on the award Emily and we look forward to continuing to have you in our department during your AMP!


Leslie Curiel, Class of 2020

Leslie Curiel MCB Major

“It’s an honor to represent this scholarship” Leslie Curiel, MCB Class of 2020, told me when I asked her about winning the scholarship. The Dottie Sams scholarships are made possible by the generous contribution of Dottie Sams. MCB awards these scholarships each year to female students studying STEM subjects. The scholarships help the students fund their research project.

Curiel started working in a research lab the summer after she graduated high school as part of the Summer Institute on Medial Ignorance (SIMI) program.  The SIMI program was developed to enrich student education and general health literacy beyond classroom lectures; additionally, it fosters closer relationships between local teachers and students and medical professionals. Students accepted in to the program work full-time in various medical laboratories and clinics at The University of Arizona Health Sciences Center, doing research. Curiel was placed in Dr. Hua Xu’s lab, in the College of Medicine, Pediatrics.  Xu’s research focuses on intestinal transport proteins.

Curiel grew up in a small border community called Somerton, Arizona, and attended high school in Yuma Arizona where she frequently visited family members in Mexico, just a 15-minute drive from her house. Curiel had an interest in science, and took all the science courses available, but her school didn’t offer advanced science courses. “I knew I wanted to have a career in a health related field working with underserved communities. What I didn’t know at that time was there are careers beyond being an MD that were available. I didn’t have any exposure to advanced science careers in research.” When Curiel entered the SIMI program, she was immersed in to the field of research and lab work. Curiel liked what she was learning and having the support of Xu, and Xu’s lab team. At the end of the SIMI program, Xu offered to keep Curiel in her lab. “Leslie is hardworking, willing to learn, and responsible. She is always willing to help others in my lab, so I was glad to offer Leslie the chance to continue working in my lab during her undergrad.”  Curiel chose to continue her work in Xu’s lab after the SIMI program ended and has been working there since. Currently, Curiel is studying how sodium hydrogen exchanger isoform 8 is involved in inflammatory bowel disease. “Winning this scholarship means I can work more in the lab and increase my focus on this research.”

When Curiel started college, she assumed she would get an undergraduate degree and then go to medical school. She started as a neuroscience major and then switched to biomedical engineering. While she excelled at the engineering courses, she also realized she wanted more people contact in her career, and less time programming on computers and she switch majors again.  “At that point, I found MCB. I really liked my lab experience and knew MCB would support that.” As she completes her junior year, Curiel is still exploring and evaluating career options. She is still committed to a health related field, but now realizes there are many options. “I’ll take my senior year to think about what is next. Maybe graduate school. I haven’t ruled out medical school, or PA school. I know now that I have a lot of options.” Curiel is set to graduate in 2020 with a Major in MCB and Minor in Spanish.

While working in a lab has been a rewarding experience, Curiel told me her best experience at the UA has been having the support of the UA community. “The support that I have had in changing my major has been great. People have been supportive and let me know that I don’t have to figure it all out right now. I have had help from professors, mentors and advisors and that has helped me be open-minded about exploring opportunities.”

We know you have many options available to you Leslie and we look forward to seeing which options you pursue!


Michele Vaughan
Publish Date: 
Apr 30, 2019