UCLA CART Announces 2021 Sigman Scholars Recipients

UCLA CART has announced this year’s Sigman Scholars, an annual summer research award given to UCLA undergraduates. The 2021 Sigman Scholars are Beza Ayalew and Zoe Day. The Sigman Scholars research program is for UCLA undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career focused on autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The program provides students with a rigorous research position in a CART lab, working under the mentorship of CART’s exceptional faculty. The program is supported by the Sigman Scholars Fund at CART.

Beza Ayalew graduated this past summer from UCLA with a major in neuroscience and a minor in education. She is a first generation college student who grew up assisting her mother navigate services for her autistic brother. Prior to enrolling at UCLA, she also volunteered at a speech clinic that primarily worked with autistic children of color. “This is where I first learned about the differences in autism diagnosis between white children and children of color, with white children being diagnosed more frequently than any other racial group. I became more aware of how differences in diagnosis not only affect the ability to get resources, but also affect how children are treated in schools” says Ms. Ayalew. Under the mentorship of Dr. Connie Kasari (UCLA), Dr. Alexandra Sturm (Loyola Marymount University), and Dr. Brian Boyd (University of Kansas), her Sigman Scholars research project looked at disparities between autism diagnosis and placement of autistic children into Special Education between African American students and white students in a large Southern California school district. She says, “One of the major reasons I am passionate about accessibility to autism evaluations is because of how much diagnosis translates to getting services.“ Studies have shown that black students are less likely to receive an autism diagnosis than white children and are more likely to be placed in special education settings when diagnosed with a disability. Ms. Ayalew examined if this overrepresentation of black students with disabilities is also seen in students with autism, and if factors like income affect classroom placement for these students. Upon completion of her Sigman Scholars project, Ms. Ayalew started as a Staff Research Associate in Dr. Kasari’s lab where she will be doing more hands-on research. She hopes to apply to graduate programs and continue to pursue autism research into the future.

Zoe Day is a UCLA undergraduate entering her senior year at UCLA. She hopes to eventually pursue an MD/PhD program with a focus in clinical neurology or developmental pediatrics. Her interest in neuroscience and autism research began through her involvement in Best Buddies and the Special Olympics prior to enrolling at UCLA. Both organizations promote inclusion of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “I believe basic autism research in mouse models and clinical neuroscience studies have great potential to yield better understandings of how the brain is affected by ASD,” she says. During the Sigman Scholars program, Ms. Day worked under the mentorship of Dr. Peyman Golshani (faculty at UCLA) involving a project to investigate behavioral and neural correlates of perceptual decision-making tasks in control wild-type mice (typical form of mice that occur in nature) and in mice that overexpress the gene Dup15q that models autism traits. The projects aims to understand behavioral deficits and related neural differences caused by ASD. She says, “Working in Dr. Golshani’s lab has played a critical role in my understanding of working in a research setting and the components of neurology research and protocols. I have been able to attend lab meetings, participate in discussions among lab members about protocol and research questions, and learn about research in the field by attending presentations.” She will continue to volunteer with the Golshani Lab through her senior year.