Story Research

California's Next Generation of Professors, Scientists and Artists Gather at CSU Research Competition

Alisia Ruble


​CSU Trustee Scholar Francisco Fernandez in his laboratory at California State University San Marcos

The California State University’s 32nd annual Student Research Competition at Sacramento State May 4-5 brought undergraduate and graduate students from across the state to showcase projects addressing some of California’s most pressing issues.

Through research collaborations with faculty, CSU students gain opportunities for deep learning that connect them with their studies and prepare them for an ever-evolving job market. Undergraduate involvement in research is also a high-impact practice linked to higher retention rates and is a key pillar of the CSU’s Graduation Initiative 2025.

“At the CSU, undergraduate students are not just another cog in the wheel; they get hands-on experience performing their own research,” said Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen when he addressed the group of more than 400 students and faculty members. “These students are our next professors, scientists and artists.”

Meet just a few of our outstanding undergraduate research students:

Cellular Biology Research Mitigates Effects of Climate Change

Cal State San Marcos’ (CSUSM) Francisco Fernandez is studying molecular and cellular biology, focusing on plant biology, genetics and diabetes. His project, which won first place in the biological and agricultural studies category, focused on the effects of stressors associated with climate change on plants in order to engineer stronger ones.

Francisco immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 18 years old and became involved in the Bridges Scholar program, an undergraduate research program run in conjunction with CSUSM, while at Palomar Community College. At CSUSM, Francisco was mentored in the lab by biology professor Dr. Mathew Escobar and recently named a CSU Trustee Scholar, one of the highest academic achievements in the CSU.

"Cal State San Marcos gave me the exposure and resources to reach my goals,” says Fernandez. “The scholarship I received as Trustee Scholar took a huge weight off of my shoulders. I was able to work less and spend more time conducting my research and being a mentor to other students like me.”

Beginning in fall of 2018, Francisco will complete a year-long internship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the ultimate goal of getting his Ph.D. and running a research lab for underrepresented students.

Partnership Between Cal State L.A. and NASA Propels Student Success

Cal State Los Angeles civil engineering student Joseph Lucey presented a statistical model between groundwater, precipitation and surface inundation that can be used to provide a general understanding of flooding developments around the world. This could provide insight in locations that do not have access to ground data.

Joseph first became involved in undergraduate research through the NASA Direct STEM program, a collaboration between Cal State L.A., the University of California Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that gives underrepresented students access to research opportunities in scientific computing and data analysis. 

Through the program, Joseph completed an internship at JPL where he performed the research he presented at the competition.
“My biggest mentor has been Dr. Sonya Lopez, who is a collaborator within the Direct STEM program,” says Lucey. “She gave me the direction I needed and I worked really hard to be successful and make the most of those opportunities.”

Joseph plans to attend graduate school for his Ph.D. at the University of California Los Angeles in fall of 2018 with the ultimate goal of performing lab research and becoming a professor.

Computer Engineering Student Helps Stroke Survivors Recover

Chloe Zirbel, an undergraduate computer engineering student at San Francisco State University, took home first place in her category for a virtual reality mobile application, VRehab, designed to help stroke victims regain motion in their upper bodies. Stroke is the leading cause of long-term disability in the U.S., in part because traditional rehabilitation is arduous and frustrating.

VRehab replicates ping pong, which helps to engage the patient in the rehabilitation process, increasing the odds that they will heal faster. It is also designed to integrate intuitive gesture control by incorporating haptic feedback. 

“These sorts of virtual reality activities do exist, however they are very expensive, so patients are limited to getting treatment in a doctor’s office,” says Zirbel. “Our application is affordable – around $300 – and portable, which will allow patients to use it wherever they are.”

Sally Casanova Scholar Credits Mentors with Achievements

Cal State Bakersfield biology student Jazmine Mejia Munoz always knew she wanted to conduct research. So when she arrived to campus as a freshman, she immediately sought opportunities to be involved. 

Faculty mentors helped her to become part of the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation program and become a Sally Casanova Scholar, a CSU program that prepares students for doctoral programs. Jazmine also received support from the CSU's Council on Ocean Affairs, Science & Technology (COAST), a collaborative group that deals with marine, coastal and coastal watershed-related activities across California.

Jazmine studies the coastal impacts of Valley Fever under the mentorship of Dr. Antje Lauer, whose research is funded by COAST, and the ecological role of tetrodotoxin in newts under Dr. Amber Stokes, which was the focus of the research she presented at the student competition.

“My parents only went up to sixth grade with their education, so a master’s degree or Ph.D. program was not mentioned in our house,” says Munoz. “But coming to Cal State Bakersfield has exposed me to opportunities I never would have known about.”

To learn more about how the CSU fosters student success through research, visit:

For a full list of CSU Student Research Competition winners, please visit:

Graduation Initiative