Science Guide

Isabella Mak opens doors for undergraduate discoveries
By Matt Windsor • Photos by Steve Wood
Photo of Isabella Mak at Jones Valley Teaching Farm; headline: Science Guide
Isabella Mak opens doors for undergraduate discoveries
By Matt Windsor • Photos by Steve Wood
Crowned Ms. UAB during Homecoming Week 2016, Isabella Mak (pictured above) became an official university ambassador. But Mak already had plenty of experience in that role. Since 2015, she has directed the Undergraduate Research Ambassadors, a group helping to provide “equal access to opportunities” for students in every major, she says.
Photo of hands holding carrots from garden
UAB overflows with research options, explains Mak, a senior neuroscience major in the College of Arts and Sciences and UAB Honors College Global and Community Leadership Program. For example, in the 2015-2016 academic year alone, more than 700 research-focused undergraduate courses attracted more than 7,300 enrollments. Mak, working alongside fellow ambassadors and Gareth Jones, assistant director of the Office of Service Learning and Undergraduate Research, hopes to boost those numbers even higher.
The 18 Research Ambassadors, all undergraduates, have counseled more than 500 mentees each year. They explain what it’s like to work in a lab and answer common questions, including how to get started and how to approach professors. “When students show interest but feel intimidated, they may just need encouragement and guidance,” Mak says. Because ambassadors specialize in various research areas, they can help students home in on opportunities to explore and faculty to meet.
Ambassadors even will let undergraduates test-drive research, pairing them with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for a day to observe their work. It’s part of a partnership between the ambassadors and UAB’s Office of Postdoctoral Education and Graduate Biomedical Student Outreach.
Photo of cabbage from garden
Mak’s own research experience began in her first semester, when she joined the lab of Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., RD, Webb Endowed Chair in the Department of Nutrition Sciences and Comprehensive Cancer Center associate director. Demark-Wahnefried is principal investigator on Harvest for Health, a clinical trial for cancer patients evaluating the effects of a “home-based vegetable garden intervention on health-related quality of life, including changes in diet and physical activity,” Mak says.
For the project, Mak has collected data, processed biological specimens, and interviewed cancer survivors at home. Demark-Wahnefried and other lab scientists have mentored her in critical thinking, patient interaction, and overcoming research challenges, Mak says. “I also have learned that research can be interdisciplinary, combining public health, genetics, biochemistry, and behavioral science.” With her sights set on medical school and a career in higher education, all of this knowledge will be invaluable.
Mak, who grew up in Hong Kong and attended high school in Dothan, Alabama, says UAB’s research opportunities drew her to Birmingham, and she’s happy to help others start their own scientific journeys. Her efforts helped earn her the 2018 Outstanding Woman Undergraduate Student award from UAB's Commission on the Status of Women. “I have had such a positive experience,” she says. “I love sharing that as a Research Ambassador.”
Published August 2017
Updated March 2018