By Beverly Makhani, Office of Undergraduate Education

Floricel-Gonzalez-80PULLMAN, Wash. – Undergraduate researcher Floricel Gonzalez recently won a national award for oral presentation of her work about how viruses infect bacteria.

“This is somewhat related to developing alternative methods to deal with foodborne pathogens that wreak havoc on animals, like E. coli and Salmonella,” said Gonzalez, 20, a double major in microbiology and English at Washington State University. “It could lead to ways to intervene at the cellular level instead of using antibiotics.”

The senior from Selah, Wash., won the award at the annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) in San Antonio, Texas, for her research, “Identification of Cell Surface Receptors Enabling Bacteriophage 7-7-1 Infection of Agrobacterium sp. H 13-3 via Transposon Mutagenesis.”

“Just being accepted to the conference was fulfilling, and winning an award was the cherry on top,” said Gonzalez. “I believe it’s important to communicate research to broader audiences. It’s fun, you get noticed in the research community and sometimes you even get money!”

“WSU and the many programs Floricel is involved with have much to be proud about,” said Mary Sánchez Lanier, WSU assistant vice provost. “Their support and efforts have contributed to Floricel’s success.”

Faculty and program support

Among those programs is the national McNair Achievement Program, which rigorously prepares underrepresented students to succeed in graduate school. The program encourages research experiences, and Gonzalez landed a summer research internship at Virginia Tech, which resulted in her award-winning research.

Also through McNair connections, she is working in the WSU lab of Anthony Nicola, which studies the cell biology of herpes virus entry into host cells. A better understanding of how the virus interacts with the cell will identify novel targets for intervention. Gonzalez’s project is examining the effect of low-pH treatment on attachment of HSV-1 to cells.

Family focus on education

Gonzalez’s family emigrated from Mexico to the Yakima Valley when she was 4, and she is the youngest of six children who grew up speaking Spanish at home.

“Throughout school and life I’ve struggled and strived to hold on to my culture by using my native language as often as possible, to learn to cook like my mother and to keep the traditions of my family,” she said.

One such tradition is pursuing education. Her four older sisters led the way and became professionals in nursing, business administration, criminal and social justice, and information technology. Gonzalez always planned to study writing and literature.

“Writing is important no matter what your field,” she said. “Ultimately, you have to be able to communicate your research effectively. If you can’t do that, whatever you’re doing doesn’t matter.”

Pursuing Ph.D., mentoring others

She also had a passion for science, “but I never knew what I could do with it,” she said.

Thanks to her research and participation in supportive WSU organizations, she has answered that question. The future research virologist plans to earn her Ph.D. and work for the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I like viruses. They’re awesome,” she said. “But we need to find ways to stop pandemics from happening. I want to contribute to organizations that work on those problems.”

Gonzalez’s research has been supported by an Auvil Scholars Fellowship from the WSU Office of Undergraduate Research, part of the Office of Undergraduate Education, and by the First Scholars Program, which provides first-generation college students with a $20,000 scholarship plus additional support to succeed in college.

She participates in the Team Mentoring Program at WSU sponsored by The Boeing Company. She mentors four First Scholars and 12 Team Mentoring students.