2024 Life Sciences Excellence Award Winners [Left to Right]: Erick Deed, David Clewett, Andrew Goldstein, Melody Li, Morgan Tingley, Martha Rimniceanu, Oliver Frigoso, Icy Zhang, Steve Bennoun, Christine Bird, Jessica Lynch, Mark Tramo, and Hillary Coller  (Not pictured:  Lori Okimoto-Wheatley, Beth Lazazzera, and Mithun Mitra)


On May 15, 2024, the UCLA Division of Life Sciences celebrated its annual Excellence Award winners. Here, below, are the recipients of this year’s awards.


Excellence Award – Life Sciences Administrative Staff 

Lori Okimoto-Wheatley • Department of Psychology (Student Affairs Officer)

As Director of Psychology Student Services, Lori Okimoto-Wheatley has been dedicated to the success and well-being of students in the department for the past 26 years. During this time, Psychology’s undergraduate student population nearly doubled in size: from 2,400 to today’s 4,700 undergraduate majors. Lori adeptly and creatively took on the challenges of limited staffing and teaching resources – addressing issues head-on, streamlining processes, and advocating for changes needed to support students, staff, and faculty.

Excellence in Promoting Diversity & Inclusion

Beth Lazazzera • Department of Microbiology, Immunology & Molecular Genetics (Associate Professor)

Dr. Lazazzera has been dedicated to educating herself and the broader UCLA community on the importance of inclusion and equity in the classroom and how to achieve this through research-based methods. She enacted best-practices to reduce equity gaps in core courses and helped institute the AAAS SEA Change curriculum here at UCLA to improve inclusive teaching practices in the undergraduate curriculum.

Christine Bird • Clinical Psychology (Ph.D. Candidate)

Christine Bird’s research focuses on understanding the unique challenges faced by marginalized communities – including sexual minority asylum seekers and low-income Latin American families. For her work, she received the Institute on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma’s research award for “Outstanding research concerning interpersonal violence or trauma that can lead to meaningful practice, policies, or advocacy.” In addition to her research, Bird has mentored 14 UCLA undergraduate students from underserved backgrounds, and for the past five years, she has been working to create a more inclusive and supportive academic community, as the creator and editor of the Psychological Clinical Science Accreditation System (PCSAS) newsletter.

Excellence in Educational Innovation 

 Jessica Lynch • Institute of Society and Genetics (Professor)

Professor Lynch is known for combining her scientific expertise and talent for teaching to create classes that span a wide range of biological subjects of broad societal interest. As an instructor of the interdisciplinary year-long Freshman Cluster course Sex: From Biology to Gendered Society, she’s combined student-centered learning with accessible explanations – of complex biological concepts, theories, and related social issues – to create a course that provides students with a deeper understanding on the topic, grounded in the latest science, societal context, and activism.

Morgan Tingley • Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (Associate Professor)

Working with input from previous instructors and graduate students, Professor Tingley made sweeping changes to the first-year graduate course, Professional Skills for Biological Research, to focus on real-life knowledge and skills that are essential for success, in graduate school and beyond. Tingley’s course demystifies the ‘hidden curriculum’ of academia; provides career panels with doctoral alumni to broaden students’ perspectives on career options; and develops critical skills (e.g., mentoring, public communication, how to give feedback, professional presence, work-life balance, time management, and navigating conflict) – setting up graduates for professional success.

Steve Bennoun • Department of Psychology (Assistant Professor)

Dr. Bennoun uses evidence-supported innovative approaches in teaching mathematics. In the undergraduate course, LS30, rather than teaching math in the way that its been traditionally taught to Life Sciences’ students, Bennoun motivates students to learn math through the use of examples that are directly relevant to life sciences (e.g., mathematical models for understanding infectious disease). He also creates opportunities – through clicker questions and small group activities – for all the hundreds of students in his class to be able to actively participate in lectures.

Oliver Fregoso & Melody Li  • Department of Microbiology, Immunology & Molecular Genetics (Assistant Professors)

Teaching together since 2021, Drs. Fregoso and Li have made innovative and effective changes to MIMG102, Introduction to Virology, an upper-division course of about 250 students. They made learning goals for the course more holistic and less-focused on memorizing details; they built community through peer learning and group work; and they used proven strategies – such as think-pair-share, live polls, weekly problem sets, a final group presentation that de-emphasizes traditional exams – to make learning in this course more effective, fun, and collaborative.

Mark Tramo • Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology (Associate Adjunct Professor)

As a practicing neurologist, musician, and researcher – Mark Tramo has created and taught a number of popular courses that focus on the intersection of neuroscience and music: NS M170/ M103 Music Mind and Brain; the general education course, The Science of Music; and M176 Auditory Neuroscience of Speech Perception and Vocal Communication. Tramo’s innovative courses deftly bring together principles of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and cross-cultural perspectives to engage a wide range of students from both south and north campus.

 Icy (Yunyi) Zhang • Department of Psychology (Ph.D. Candidate)

Icy Zhang used her research findings, from the lab, to improve learning experiences for diverse learners in the large introductory statistics course, Psych 100A. In the lab, Zhang showed that sensorimotor experiences or  “embodiment” (e.g., drawing, gesturing, and interacting with objects) can positively affect learning. Based on these findings, she designed and iteratively implemented a 10-week lab curriculum to supplement the Psych 100A lectures.  Over the past two years, more than 800 students have gone through this curriculum, and they have confirmed that Zhang’s lab results can be replicated in an authentic educational setting – and that this is a learning experience that they value and enjoy.

Excellence in Research 

 Hilary Coller (Professor) and Mithun Mitra (Associate Project Scientist) • Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology

”Pan-cancer landscape of epigenetic factor expression predicts tumor outcome”  (2023 Communications Biology)

This research addresses the role of epigenetic factors, or “epifactors,” in human cancer progression.They showed that across different cancer types, tumors separate into two distinct clusters based on expression of epifactor genes. For many of the cancers, there were different clinical outcomes for patients in the two groups, indicating that epifactor expression can correlate with clinical outcomes. In some cases, epifactor expression was a better indicator of clinical outcome than other metrics such as tumor stage and grade. They developed a machine-learning model that used epifactor expression that successfully predicted clinical outcome in patients with multiple different types of cancers. Their study also identified specific epifactors that could serve as novel targets for anti-cancer therapies. 

Andrew Goldstein • Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology (Associate Professor)

Prostate lineage-specific metabolism governs luminal differentiation and response to antiandrogen treatment” (Nature Cell Biology 2023)

In this study, the Goldstein lab performed metabolic profiling of prostate epithelial cells and discovered that luminal and basal cells have distinct metabolic signatures. The study also showed that lactate metabolism contributes to antiandrogen resistance, providing new insights into how prostate cancer cells become resistant to treatment. This study was covered broadly in the news and was highlighted in multiple commentaries.  

David Clewett • Department of Psychology (Assistant Professor)

Dynamic emotional states shape the episodic structure of memory(Nature Communications 2023)

This study combined novel pieces of music with a tool that continuously tracked participants’ emotional responses to examine how fluctuations in participants’ emotional states might influence the content and structure of their memories. Results showed that episodic memory is indeed organized around the ebb and flow of emotions across time: stable emotional states compressed and linked memories together, whereas an abrupt shift in emotion (e.g., feeling very happy then very sad) segmented experiences into distinct episodes. Pleasant emotions, in particular, helped fuse different details of an experience, highlighting the power of positive emotions in shaping human memory.

Martha Rimniceanu • Integrative Biology and Physiology (Ph.D. Candidate)

“Proprioception gates visual object fixation in flying flies” (Current Biology 2023)

Martha Rimniceanu studies visual object-tracking in Drosophila. In this study, she used a relatively new, experimental set-up that allows the study-subject to move unrestricted, while responding to visual cues. Using this system, she found that proprioception (the body’s ability to sense and adjust body position) affects processing in the brain’s visual system. Her study highlights how, in naturalistic settings, multiple sensory cues shape how brain circuits process information.