From analyzing the mechanism of infection which spreads HIV, to examining how an adolescent mind is biologically more susceptible to addiction, CSUSM students and faculty are on the cutting edge of science, conducting research through the University’s Office for Biomedical Research and Training (OBRT).

Established in 2000 by Dr. Victor Rocha, OBRT functions as the administrative home for several campus-wide research projects and focuses on student development in the biomedical sciences. The primary objective of the program is to expose and equip students with the knowledge and skills that they need to pursue a Ph.D. and obtain a successful career in the sciences.

“Many undergraduate students are unsure about a career as a scientist,” said Dr. Keith Trujillo, director of OBRT and professor of psychology at CSUSM. “The applied sciences, such as that of medicine or health care, tend to receive more recognition since those careers are more visible in the community. OBRT, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, is helping to sustain the fields of science by inspiring a new generation of scientists at an undergraduate level.”

With a current enrollment of 63 students, of which 80 percent are undergraduates, OBRT emphasizes the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and offers students the opportunity to perform and present original scientific research. To be accepted into the program, students must submit a formal application, have full-time status, be majoring in biology, chemistry, computer science, kinesiology, physics, math, or psychology, and be committed to pursuing graduate training.

“I really enjoy the opportunity to launch students into careers they never would have thought of; many of these students are first-generation college students,” Trujillo added.

Currently, more than 60 OBRT alumni are working toward a Ph.D. or Master’s Degree. Since the program’s inception, six have earned a Ph.D.

Among those six is Angelica Rocha, who earned her Ph.D. from Texas A&M University and graduated with nine published articles in reputable, peer-reviewed journals in the area of behavioral pharmacology. In 2009, she completed a postdoctoral program and later taught for a year before returning to CSUSM this fall, as the assistant director of student research programs.

“I was drawn back to CSUSM and the OBRT program because of my commitment to increase awareness and accessibility to the sciences for students who, such as myself, might be first-generation college students or face other challenges that create obstacles in achieving their goal of attending graduate school,” said Rocha. “My doctoral degree is a testament to this program’s success in helping to develop and promote scholarly excellence in students who have the motivation, but would otherwise lack the professional guidance on how to achieve their long-term career goals.”

Beyond providing rigorous hands-on research at CSUSM, OBRT also offers students networking opportunities with representatives from some of the nation’s top research universities. A wide range of tutorials and workshops also augments the program and features varying topics from math and science skills, to the latest scientific findings, to preparing competitive applications for graduate school. In addition, stipends are awarded to provide financial stability, allowing students to focus on academics and research without worrying about the necessity of a job.

To further enhance student research opportunities, OBRT also supports faculty research by helping professors acquire grants and leverage campus resources. As an added mutual benefit, undergraduate and graduate students work with faculty mentors to assist with diverse research projects. Annually, OBRT pairs more than 50 students with at least 15 faculty mentors, whose research spans a broad range of scientific disciplines from the natural sciences to the social and behavioral sciences.

Today, among the program’s many faculty mentors conducting research, with the help of OBRT students, are Associate Professor of Biological Sciences
Dr. Bianca Mothe, studying the mechanism of infection of HIV and related viruses; Professor of Psychology Dr. Dustin Calvillo, examining the cognitive psychology of reasoning, judgment, and decision making; and Professor of Kinesiology Dr. Jeff Nessler, exploring the effects of a robotic step-training device on muscle physiology following spinal cord injury.

“Participating in undergraduate research helped motivate me to continue my education and it gave me a chance to practice what I was learning in my classes while I was an undergraduate student,” commented recent CSUSM alumna Colleen Heller. “Working in the lab cemented my interest in pharmacology and neuroscience.”

“We’re building something important at CSUSM that benefits the students, the University and the community as a whole,” explained Trujillo. “We’re training students who are the next economic driving force in our community. Many of these students, who would have ended with careers at a bachelor’s level, are obtaining a Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences and becoming our future leaders in this very important field.”

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Picture of Dr. Keith Trujillo

Dr. Trujillo & His Team are Making Powerful Discoveries at CSUSM

As CSUSM Psychology Professor and Director of OBRT Dr. Keith Trujillo can attest, it doesn’t take extensive research to conclude that adolescence is a unique period during human development. But what Dr. Trujillo is most interested in is why an adolescent brain may be more vulnerable to developing addictions to drugs of abuse than a fully-developed adult brain.

“It’s important to acknowledge that drug abuse and addiction are complex issues involving many factors,” said Trujillo. “During adolescence in particular, it is clear that social factors, ranging from peer-pressure to family dynamics, are important contributors to drug use. However, it also is clear that there are many biological changes during the pre-teen and teen years, and these could influence the response to drugs and the development of drug abuse and addiction.”

Trujillo, who began teaching psychology at CSUSM in the fall of 1994, specializes in the areas of psychopharmacology and neuroscience and focuses his research on the brain and behavior studies. Currently interested in the behavioral and neural effects of psychoactive and psychotherapeutic drugs, Trujillo and his team of OBRT students are investigating how these drugs affect an adolescent’s brain function, behavior, and development.

Since most scientific research pertaining to addiction uses adult models, there is little research to differentiate the known biological variances of a developing brain. Funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, Trujillo’s research is in its third year of a four-year study, and already the results are impressive.

“It’s very exciting,” said Trujillo. “We’re seeing more dramatic results than we were initially anticipating.”

Conducting his study in a Science Hall 1 laboratory at CSUSM, Trujillo’s research is part of the University’s OBRT program. His team of research assistants includes two undergraduates, three graduate students, and one student conducting post-baccalaureate work.

“We’re making great advances that can tangibly help people,” Trujillo added. “This research will help with the therapeutic treatment and possibly even the prevention of drug addiction and mental illness. It’s exciting, not only for me but for our students as well, to see the immediate application of our work. Undoubtedly, we’re making powerful discoveries at CSUSM.”