Student researchers take top honors at STEM symposium

Original research conducted by an FIU undergraduate student could someday lead to safer treatments for melanoma, the deadliest and most aggressive form of skin cancer.

Ruslan Garcia, a senior studying biological sciences, presented his findings at the first STEM Undergraduate Research Symposium sponsored by Life Sciences South Florida, a consortium of educational, economic and research-based institutions that includes FIU.

Garcia’s presentation took home the top prize at the event, which showcased scientific work by 62 students from eight colleges and universities in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

“It was a great opportunity to get exposure for your research,’’ said Garcia, 21. “Events like this are a good way to attract talented students to science.’’

Senior Ruslan Garcia studied tumors in mice to gain insight into human cases of skin cancer.

Senior Ruslan Garcia studied tumors in mice to gain insight into human cases of skin cancer.

Garcia analyzed tumors in mice to determine whether the presence of certain types of proteins led to increased metastasizing of cancerous cells to the lungs, brain and lymph nodes. The goal was to gain insight into how human tumors will behave in similar situations.

“Ultimately, developing specific drugs to target these proteins could result in safer treatment for patients,’’ said Garcia, who conducted his research with Dr. Lidia Kos and doctoral student Nikeisha Chin.

Another FIU student, Alex Perez, tied for second place in the oral presentation category. Perez, a senior majoring in marine sciences, presented research on the production of carbon and sediment in the sea grass beds of Florida Bay.

Alex Perez

Senior Alex Perez conducted research on the sea grass beds of Florida Bay.

“With increased human activity in coastal ecosystems and climate change, it’s important that we better understand how to preserve and protect these areas,’’ said Perez, 22. “People see the sea grass beds but don’t appreciate the beauty or importance of them. They provide habitat, increase water equality and reduce erosion. Not until you understand everything they do for the planet can you really appreciate them.’’

The LSSF STEM Research Symposium was held at Miami Dade College in March. In addition to FIU and Miami Dade, the symposium drew students from Florida Atlantic University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Palm Beach State College, University of Miami, Indian River State College and Nova Southeastern University. The event was organized by the FIU Office of Engagement and the LSSF STEM K-20 Student and Workforce Development Subcommittee.

“I was delighted with the result of the conference,” said Dr. Irma Becerra-Fernandez, interim vice president for engagement. “It was wonderful to see our young student researchers engaged in presenting their work and having conversations with their peers, administrators, and industry leaders. I am very proud of all the students who participated and expect next year’s symposium to be even bigger and better.”

Becerra-Fernandez said next year, organizers plan to have more industry leaders participate to provide students with even more exposure to local companies and future career opportunities.

“I am happy to report this group is already planning next year’s symposium,” she said. “We have begun an annual symposium and I have great expectations.”

Life Sciences South Florida is an initiative launched by FIU and multiple partners in 2010 to establish an industry cluster in South Florida focused on life sciences, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, diagnostics and information technology. For more information on the program, visit