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UC San Diego senior named Churchill Scholar for extraordinary undergraduate research

Vikram Juneja, a UC San Diego senior, has been named the first Churchill Scholar at the university and he will use the $50,000 award to complete a one-year graduate program at Cambridge University, where he will work on a master's thesis on cancer stem cell research.

Juneja, a mechanical engineering major, has maintained a near 4.0 GPA, earning A+ grades in almost half his courses. Last spring when he was about to graduate his academic interests expanded dramatically after completing one biology class. His passion lead him to stay at UC San Diego another year to complete the course work needed for graduate work in the life sciences.

Biology professor Laurie Smith, the UC San Diego representative for the Churchill Scholarship program, nominated Juneja because she was impressed with his achievements and potential. "UC San Diego has its share of truly outstanding students in the sciences and engineering," she said. "In 10 years as a faculty member at UC San Diego I have interacted with scores of extremely bright, accomplished undergraduates in my classes, in research settings and in my role as an academic advisor, but I can honestly say that I have never encountered a student like Juneja before."

Juneja is one of 14 Churchill Scholars selected this year from a pool of 99 applicants from 63 colleges and universities nationwide, the largest applicant pool since the competition began in 1963. Churchill Scholars are chosen for their exceptional academic achievements and demonstrated capacity to contribute to the advancement of knowledge in the sciences, engineering or mathematics by pursuing original, creative work at an advanced level. Eight of the 480 former Churchill Scholars have gone on to win Nobel Prizes.

Juneja said he would not have been able to win the scholarship if he hadn't attended UC San Diego, where he was given extraordinary research opportunities. During his fourth year Juneja immersed himself in research at the UC San Diego School of Medicine studying cancer stem cell biology, working 30 hours per week in the in the lab while having a full class schedule. "The work was fun, but I was able to do top notch work and get the one-on-one experience with faculty and doctors," he said.

During summer 2008, he worked full-time at the UC San Diego School of Medicine with the support of an Amylin Research Scholarship, which is funded through Amylin Pharmaceutical's support of the Chancellor's Challenge 5K Run/Walk for Scholars.

"Millions of people have been affected by cancer," Juneja said. "So it was easy to stay motivated because our research will help so many people. It was exciting to come to the lab every day and feel a part of something."

Prior to researching cancer stem cells, Juneja participated in research with the Instrument Development Group at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, focusing on the autonomous underwater glider called Spray. His past work also includes working on a project with Constantine Pozrikidis, professor in the Department of Mechanical Aerospace Engineering, on the mechanics of hexagonal lattices and the underlying structure of carbon nanotubes.

"I had a gut feeling about coming to UC San Diego," Juneja said. "I am from the Bay Area and I looked at UC Berkeley, but knew UC San Diego was a hot up-and-coming research institution. I was able to get so much hands-on experience outside of the classroom."

While an undergraduate at UC San Diego, Juneja co-authored four publications, including one first-author publication. "They are unprecedented in my experience for an undergraduate," Smith said.

Next year while studying with Fiona Watt, a cancer researcher and deputy director of the Cambridge Research Institute, Juneja will continue to research the interaction of stem cells with their environment and how their basic processes are disturbed in cancer.

Juneja is excited to study in the United Kingdom and looks forward to traveling in Europe next year. He has been applying to Ph.D. programs in bioengineering this year and plans to go straight from Cambridge into a doctoral program. He is combining his passion for engineering with a deep fascination with biology, so bioengineering will allow him to combine both disciplines.

"He appears to me an ideal candidate for the Churchill Scholarship," Smith said. "He is someone who will undoubtedly go on to have a distinguished career as a physician and scientist."


Contact: Christine Clark
University of California - San Diego

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