Gift to UCR enables Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program’s first award

Author: Iqbal Pittalwala
March 4, 2022

Yuqi Ma, a doctoral student in the Department of Molecular, Cell and Systems Biology, is the first recipient of an award of $10,000 from the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, or CNAS, made possible by a gift from the Leonard Family Foundation. The Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at UCR is the first graduate program selected for this annual award by the CNAS dean, who can give it to any graduate program affiliated with the college to aid in recruiting top applicants to UCR.

“The recruitment and support of doctoral students is a priority for CNAS, and having the Leonard Family Foundation as a partner is instrumental in making it a reality for our doctoral students,” said Kathryn Uhrich, dean of CNAS. “Such students are being trained as the next-generation knowledge makers in their faculty’s labs and as the next-generation knowledge sharers as teaching assistants for our undergraduate students. Through the generous support of John and Elizabeth Leonard, exceptional doctoral students, such as Yuqi Ma, will make UCR their home.”

Anupama Dahanukar, an associate professor of molecular, cell and systems biology and the chair of the admissions committee that selected Ma as a nominee for the award, was impressed with every aspect of Ma’s application.

Yuqi Ma.

“We were thrilled that the dean gave us this award to sweeten our offer for Yuqi to join the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at UCR,” said Dahanukar who serves as graduate advisor for recruitment for the program. 

Ma, who earned her bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and master’s degree in integrative biology and physiology at UCLA, joined UC Riverside in 2020. At UCLA, she investigated the neural mechanisms behind learning and memory.

Born in China, Ma came to the United States when she was three years old. She is a recipient of a UCLA Achievement Scholarship, a four-year scholarship granted to select students in recognition of high academic achievement. This award and additional financial aid helped her complete her bachelor’s degree with departmental honors. While working on her master’s degree, she received a UCLA Integrative Biology and Physiology Fellowship. 

Ma joined UCR with a Eugene Cota Robles Award, a four-year fellowship supporting students who have demonstrated high potential and promise and are interested in a career in college or university teaching. She now works with Anandasankar Ray, a professor of molecular, cell, and systems biology, and uses the fruit fly as a model to investigate how odors in the environment may induce changes in gene expression throughout the body, even in reproductive organs, thereby affecting the development of subsequent generations.

“It is imperative to understand not only how our environment shapes us but also how it can impact our children and grandchildren,” Ma said. “By understanding how harmful experiences may be transferred across generations, we can develop treatments to block this transfer and allow subsequent generations to lead healthy lives.”

Ma believes an essential part of research is attending conferences, where she can find groundbreaking talks, a plethora of specialized workshops, and networking events. 

“At conferences, I can share my research and experience with mentees and find inspiration and knowledge from mentors,” she said. “With this award, I can finally take part in these stimulating exchanges.”

The donors, alumnus John Leonard and Elizabeth Leonard, made a gift to CNAS in 2019 to support the Leonard Family Foundation Graduate Student Scholar. Additionally, the Leonards have made impactful gifts to establish an endowed chair in biochemistry and an endowed fellowship fund in the name of the Leonard Family Foundation. John is a member of the UCR Foundation Board of Trustees; he and Elizabeth are members of the Beyond Brilliant student initiative committee, and cochair the CNAS Dean’s Development Advisory Board.