Undergraduate wins UC Graduate Deans’ Leadership and Research Award

Author: Iqbal Pittalwala
March 13, 2024

Erik Hakopian, a fourth-year undergraduate student and neuroscience major at UCR, has been awarded a UC Graduate Deans’ Leadership and Research Award, a prestigious UC-wide honor. The award, accompanied by a cash prize of $500, is given to scholars who showed extraordinary leadership during their tenure as University of California Leadership Excellence through Advanced Degrees, or UC LEADS, scholars. 

The UC LEADS program prepares promising students for advanced education in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering. Hakopian joined the two-year fellowship program in April 2022; his tenure will end when he graduates this May. Each year, only 6-8 people are awarded UC LEADS fellowships per UC campus.

Erik Hakopian.

Hakopian received the award on March 2 at the Koret UC LEADS Research and Leadership Symposium held at UC Berkeley. The annual symposium serves as an opportunity for mentors and scholars from all UC campuses to meet as an intellectual community. Scholars share their research through poster presentations, attend professional development workshops and panels, and listen to keynote addresses from speakers in government and industry.

Hakopian’s poster presentation was titled “Exploring the effects of MK-801 on functional connectivity of the septo-hippocampal networks via machine learning algorithm classification.” MK-801 is an antagonist — a chemical substance that binds to and blocks the activation of certain receptors on cells — that induces schizophrenia-like symptoms in rodents. Hakopian explained that brain disorders can offer insight into how the brain works. 

“When something doesn’t work properly in the brain, we can compare its outcome to when it is normally functioning,” he said. “Schizophrenia is one of the brain disorders resulting in delusions and hallucinations. Thus, studying it can reveal many functionalities of the brain. One of the functionalities I’m analyzing is a specific network of six regions in the brain called the septo-hippocampal network that is responsible for memory and learning.”

Drawn to neuroscience at an early age, Hakopian believes the biggest breakthrough in the field will be when the brain is fully understood. 

“All the advancements in AI models, self-driving cars, and much more started from the attempt to replicate the architecture of the human brain,” he said. “I would like to understand how we interact with information, store it, and use it to innovate.”

Born in Iran, Hakopian’s family struggled to make ends meet. His father earned the equivalent of $10 a day at a time when a pound of meat cost about $4. Hakopian remembers not seeing his father too often because the latter “worked night and day to put food on our plate.” So that Hakopian could eat, his mother sometimes skipped her meals. His parents took on debts to enroll him in school so he could learn to read and write.

“My journey of becoming a leader started in Iran, where the simplest human rights were nowhere to be found,” he said. “I was 14 when I first participated in a big protest for women’s rights. The threat of tear gas, batons, and even rubber bullets being used against the people loomed large, casting a shadow of fear over every march and rally. The potential consequences of speaking out were severe. Capture could mean imprisonment and harsh punishments, leaving many with a difficult choice between silence and risking their safety.”

Hakopian was 18 years old when his family arrived in the United States. His focus quickly turned to supporting the family – his parents and a sister. 

“The land of second chances brought both relief and fear,” he said. “My parents, adrift in a sea of English, clung to me, my sister too young to understand. At that moment, I knew my childhood was over.” 

Hakopian took on two jobs to support the three lives dependent on him. In high school, he struggled to understand what people said and relied on Google to learn English in just six months. He enrolled in Pasadena City College, where he served as treasurer for the Armenian Student Association club. He had no research experience when he transferred to UCR, where he was accepted into the UC LEADS program. It marked, he said, the most transformative occasion of his career.

During his first UC LEADS summer internship, Hakopian met with many students who faced challenges getting into labs and were confused about research. It inspired him to create a discord server for students wanting to do research. More than 300 students joined in the first two weeks. He also helped establish the Academic, Preparation, Recruitment, and Opportunities - Student Ambassador Club on campus, initially taking on the role of vice president; he is now the club's president. 

“Erik is an intellectually curious student with strong writing and analytical skills,” said Anthony Macías, a professor of ethnic studies who teaches ‘Introduction to the Study of Race and Ethnicity,’ a course Hakopian took. “He has an open mind and rigorously considers every concept from different angles. His critical thinking and reading comprehension ensure that he arrives at logical, well-reasoned conclusions. I have seen him respectfully interact with his classmates, leading to generous, fruitful collaborations. Students like Erik are a breath of fresh air, and they keep my fire for teaching burning brightly.”

Vasileios Christopoulos, an assistant professor of bioengineering who has mentored Hakopian for nearly two years, also had praise for him.

“Erik is an exceptional and passionate student,” he said. “He comes with new ideas in research and can spend hours and days in the lab working on current projects. He has developed a pipeline for performing functional connectivity analysis in the animal brain. He also designed and developed an implantable system for mounting the ultrasound probe into the head of the animals so that we can perform experiments in awake and behaving animals.”

After he graduates with a bachelor’s in neuroscience, Hakopian plans to apply to graduate school for his doctoral degree, with a focus on how information is stored and recalled in the brain.

“I know I still have a lot to do to achieve my dreams, but this award is a reminder of how far I have come as well as my family’s and my own hard work,” he said. “I’m excited about the future and to work even harder.”

Hakopian’s other honors include an Honors Excellence in Research (HEIR) Scholarship, Hays Capstone Project Fellowship, winner of the Blackstone LaunchPad Ideas Competition, and a Maria Franco-Gallardo Scholarship.