Student lands national scholarship, job at NIH after graduation


An FIU student was chosen as one of 16 undergraduates across the nation to receive a scholarship from the National Institutes of Health, which includes a one-year, paid research position at its lab in Bethesda, Md., after graduation.

The recipient, senior biology major Brian Ho, has a resume that fits the bill of a national scholarship awardee. He is a former participant of (and current peer mentor to) FIU’s MARC U*STAR fellowship, which provides minority students funding and support to conduct research as undergraduates and encourages them to pursue doctorates.

Brian Ho presents research at an EXROP conference.

Brian Ho presents research at an EXROP conference.

He also participated in the Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP), a national program that provides minority students summer research opportunities at renowned Howard Hughes Medical Institute labs.

Through the program, Ho spent the summer of 2015 researching protein response in yeast at University of California San Francisco; and he spent his next summer researching E. coli at Columbia University. Now, Ho mentors FIU’s two current EXROP participants.

At FIU, Ho is a member of the Quantifying Biology in the Classroom (QBIC) program, which provides students with an in-depth life sciences curriculum. And he has spent the last three years researching genetics in Professor Alexander Agoulnik’s lab in the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.

Agoulnik said Ho shows exemplary initiative and was instrumental in producing two of the lab’s widely cited publications. Agoulnik was so impressed by Ho’s work ethic he hired him as a full-time employee in the lab when financial issues forced Ho to take a year off from school.

“I’m glad I have such a person I can rely on,” Agoulnik said. “He’s very goal-oriented, and he’s a very mature guy. It’s one of the reasons we selected him at the beginning. He has this understanding of different cultures, and he can clearly be a part of a team. This is important in a lab where people from all over the world are working.”

Ho, whose advisors describe him as adept but humble, said he’s “just happy to be able to pay the rent” for another year while in school. He lives on his own in Florida, and his parents live in Antigua, where he was raised. So the award will help him finish his final year of undergraduate school while focusing on research.

MARC U*STAR program coordinator Amy Reid said Ho deserves the award not only because of his academic success, but because he is a natural leader.

“He’s reliable. People go to him for advice,” Reid said. “The other students, his peers, look up to him.”

Reid encourages all undergraduate students in the sciences to follow Ho’s example by engaging in research before graduation.

While strengthening a resume, researching also helps students develop critical thinking and teamwork skills; learn grant writing, a valuable skill they’ll need when researching in graduate school; apply theory learned in the classroom; and network with faculty and other peers in the research community.

Ho’s advice for undergraduates looking to do research: Apply. Overcoming the fear of rejection can be difficult, but if you don’t apply at all, the answer will always be “no.”

“Take the opportunities when they come,” he said.

One of the reasons he has accepted so many opportunities is to explore different niches within his major, and it’s helped him realize he wants to pursue a career in research and possibly become a professor.

“Figuring out what you want to do is like actual science,” Ho said. “Life is trial-and-error.”

Agoulnik believes the NIH award will set Ho on the right path to beginning his career, and working in NIH’s lab in Bethesda for a year will help him secure the graduate school of his choice.

“It’s a unique opportunity to go out and have exposure to top-notch labs in the world,” he said. “The doors are open.”