Like many first-year college students, Lubna Mulla ’22 felt overwhelmed as a new undergraduate when she started her college journey at Dominican University of California.
“My first year I was really shy – I was an introvert,” Lubna recalls. “I did not like to raise my hand in class even though I knew the answer and I did not know how to approach my professors.”
But, over the course of that first year, Lubna gained the courage to speak up in class, ask questions, attend office hours, and network with faculty.
Now – two published research papers (and a third under review), four conference presentations, and one undergraduate summer fellowship at Stanford University later – Lubna has advice for students beginning their college journey this month: Don’t be afraid to reach out to your professors.
“Because Dominican is a small school you really get to make connections with the faculty, and I suggest all students take time to make those connections – find people who can be your mentors and who can guide you even after you graduate.”
“If you are interested in someone’s research then just ask them questions and ask if you can work in their lab,” she recommends. “Getting involved with research really helps make it clear what you want to do in the future.”
Lubna credits her Dominican professors in the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics – particularly Dr. Meredith Protas and Dr. Obed Hernández-Gómez – for encouraging and supporting her throughout her undergraduate years.
“These professors helped me gain confidence, especially once I began working in their labs,” she recalls. “I went from being shy to not hesitating to raise my hand and answer the questions. I also started to feel more comfortable talking with my peers – I would share my ideas, offer critiques if I understood something, and ask them questions if I did not understand.”
Lubna excelled at science while attending Mill Valley’s Tamalpais High School, and when it came time to select a college, she looked for two things: a strong science program and the opportunity to work alongside faculty researchers.
Dominican and the School of Health and Natural Sciences checked both boxes.
While Lubna had plenty of college options, including several UC campuses, her mentor from 10,000 Degrees, a nonprofit organization that works directly with local students to support them on their way to college, suggested that Dominican would be the best fit.
“My mentor felt that Dominican would be a great place for me because it had a good science program, it was close to home – I wanted to stay close to my family – and I would get a lot of attention and support from professors,” Lubna says.
All Dominican biology and chemistry undergraduates participate in the department’s signature Research Methodology Course Series early in their academic journey. Seven units of hands-on laboratory or field-based research are integrated into the majors, with pathways for scientific writing and research.
Her sophomore year, Lubna selected Dr. Meredith Protas' lab in order to gain experience working on research involving genetics. The Protas lab works on an aquatic crustacean species that has both surface-dwelling and cave-dwelling populations with extreme differences in eye size, pigmentation, and appendage length. The lab investigates the genetics and developmental biology behind these differences and to understand how and why these characteristics evolved. Working in the Protas lab gave Lubna valuable experience working at the molecular level including becoming a co-author on a peer reviewed article published earlier this year.
Dr. Protas also encouraged Lubna to apply to an undergraduate research summer fellowship at Stanford.
“I never imagined before coming to Dominican that I would work at Stanford. It was a big deal for me – a dream school because of its research program.” While her summer fellowship was cut short due to illness, Lubna’s goal is to return to Stanford for her PhD.
As a junior, Lubna also was offered the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant in Dr. Hernández-Gómez’s advanced genetics course. However, the COVID pandemic and the sudden pivot to online learning interrupted this work.
“When I was talking with Dr. Hernández-Gómez about ways to continue her internship hours, I suggested that because I was already working in the Protas lab and already knew many of the lab techniques that I could complete while working in his lab.”
The OHG lab specializes in studying the microbial symbionts and genetics of turtles and amphibians. On a global scale, amphibian and reptile populations are declining because of habitat loss, pollution, and disease. Dr. Hernandez-Gomez’s lab applies molecular tools such as DNA sequencing on microbial and host samples to better understand the effects of environmental change on disease susceptibility in North American salamanders, frogs and turtles.
Her senior year, Lubna became closely involved with two major OHG lab projects – one involving the impact of wildfires on salamanders and the other determining the distribution of bacterial symbionts on freshwater turtles.
She became so involved with the research that she continued working in the OHG lab after graduating in 2022, not only to continue with the work but also to help coordinate the lengthy back-and-forth process involved with submitting papers and to scientific journals.
The findings from one project, which assessed how wildfires affect the skin microbiota of three different salamander species, were recently published in Environmental Microbiology, with Lubna listed as the lead author. The recent 2020 wildfires affected some of Dr. Hernández-Gómez’s salamander monitoring sites in the Bay Area. Dr. Hernández-Gómez’s research class collected samples from and measured salamanders from these sites in 2021. Lubna prepared the 2021 samples along with samples collected in 2018 for microbial DNA profiling. Lubna and Dr. Hernández-Gómez found that burning led to larger terrestrial salamanders and shifted their skin microbial communities. Finding larger salamanders after a fire is concerning, as it suggests that the youngest individuals in the population did not survive the event.
The turtle project, currently under review, expands an earlier study by the OHG lab which was the first to confirm the presence of Pond Turtle Shell Disease, an infectious disease associated with the fungus Emydomyces testavorans (Emte) in California’s turtles. Lubna collaborated with a team of Dominican undergraduate researchers and biologists from the San Francisco Zoo, East Bay Regional Parks, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County to describe the diversity of freshwater turtle microbiomes throughout the Bay Area. In addition to working on papers, Lubna also presented at a number of academic conferences, including the Bay Area Infectious Disease Conference and the West Coast Biological Sciences Undergraduate Research Conference.
This past year in addition to working in the OHG lab, Lubna also worked as a trainee pharmacy technician.
“Before arriving at Dominican, I did not know that I could be given the opportunity to attend conferences and even present at conferences. I had no idea how any of this worked because no one in my family was involved in the scientific field, so I did not know what to expect. Now I’ve already presented at four conferences and I have had two professors always there for me along the way.”
Photo credit: Katte Garcia '22