Curci Scholars 2023-2024

The Shurl and Kay Curci Foundation established the Curci Scholars program in 2021 to provide full scholarships and living expenses for the first two years of PhD programs for six students at each of three universities: UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, and University of Washington. In 2022, the program was expanded to include UCSF, University of Utah, and University of Colorado Boulder. 

The Shurl and Kay Curci Foundation PhD Scholarship at UCSF – established with a generous gift of $1.75M –  is dedicated to supporting basic science research in the life sciences. The scholarship supports incoming PhD students in the basic sciences for the first two years of their degree program, with a special emphasis on increasing recruitment of women and international students. Six students were selected in year one of the program, and an additional cohort of six students have been awarded in 2023-24. Learn more about the Curci Foundation.


2023-2024 Awardees

Brenda Ametepe

First Year Student, Bioengineering PhD Program

Brenda AmetepeAkue Adjovi Brenda Beni Ametepe was born in Togo, a French-speaking country in West Africa. Having experienced the medical inadequacy of her home country, Brenda has been inspired to use science and engineering to develop technologies that will positively impact the global population. Toward this goal, she moved to the United States to begin her educational journey. She first started at Santa Rosa Junior College and then transferred to California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). At CSULB, Brenda majored in biomedical engineering and joined the research lab of Dr. Siavash Ahrar, where she worked on droplet systems. One of the droplet systems she worked on aimed to develop uniform micrometric HUVECs encapsulated alginate beads for wound healing applications. Brenda has been recognized as the Department Outstanding Baccalaureate Graduate. In the joint UC Berkeley-UCSF Bioengineering PhD program, Brenda will be conducting research related to the tissue engineering field, with a focus on developing large-scale tissue constructs. Brenda is passionate about diversity, inclusion, and representation in STEM and served as the vice president of the National Society of Black Engineers at CSULB. During her interim, Brenda was involved in multiple initiatives to empower the next generation of underrepresented students. At UC Berkeley-UCSF she seeks to keep being involved with marginalized communities. 

What it means to be a Curci Scholar:

"Being a Curci Scholar means contributing to closing the generational gap between people who look like me and the majority. Being a Black woman in STEM, it is important for me to actively contribute to representation. Throughout my undergraduate studies, I sought to find a mentor who looks like me but I was hardly successful. Because of these experiences, I understand the importance of representation in STEM. Words are important, but nothing equals seeing a role model who physically looks like you being in a leadership position in STEM. Therefore, being a Curci Scholar means just that for me. It means being a representative for all the international women passionate about STEM from marginalized backgrounds. It means showing to this population that despite the societal challenges, it is possible to excel in STEM. It is an honor to be a Curci Scholar and a humbling experience to contribute to closing that generational gap."

Haoyu Fan

First Year Student, Chemistry and Chemical Biology PhD Program

Haoyu FanHaoyu Fan was born and grew up in Shanghai, China. He received his bachelor of science degree in chemistry and computer science in University of California, Berkeley. In his freshman year as chemistry major, he joined the John Hartwig group to study organic chemistry and homogeneous catalysis. In his first two projects with a mentor, he worked on iridium catalyzed hydroamination of alkenes and reported the first enantiospecific reaction of such type that required low alkene to amine ratio. In this process, Haoyu realized the potential of machine learning in assisting chemical and biological discovery and developed a great interest in combining these two fields of research. Therefore, he pursued a second degree in computer science, and participated in a project using graph neural networks (GNN) to predict the enantioselectivity of Noyori hydrogenation of ketones. Haoyu would very much like to continue researching novel machine learning algorithms, molecular representations, and the various possibilities to incorporate them in chemistry and chemical biology.

What it means to be a Curci Scholar:

“As I came to United States for undergraduate study at the age of 19, I experienced great cultural shock and various difficulties to start a scientific career as an international student. Therefore, I am truly grateful and honored to receive the Curci Scholarship which is dedicated to women and international students. It reminds me that science has no nationality, and it is our mission to create a more embracing science community that allows every person with passion to succeed. As a future scientist, I would like to devote myself not only to academic research, but also every chance to increase the diversity and inclusiveness of our community and to help underprivileged groups achieve a successful career in science.”

Tayma Handal

First Year Student, Developmental and Stem Cell Biology PhD Program

Tayma HandalTayma Handal is a Palestinian who was born and raised in East Jerusalem. She first found interest in biology and genetic engineering in high school, which led her to pursue her bachelor’s in biotechnology and then a master’s in human genetics. During her master’s degree at the Eiges lab at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI), she worked specifically on the reversibility of the epigenetic landscape at the DMPK locus and was able to identify the role of differentiation in permanently setting the epigenetic profile of the DMPK gene. She became more interested in stem cells and development which led her to join the Blelloch lab at UCSF after her master’s degree. In the Blelloch lab, she focused on dissecting the role of miR291 and miR302 target genes in ES proliferation and identifying gene and cell dysfunction in the placenta of preeclampsia individuals. In graduate school she is looking forward to exploring more fields specifically in human and brain development and regenerative medicine as well.

What it means to be a Curci Scholar:

“It is an honor for me to be a recipient of the Curci Foundation Scholarship. It is extremely difficult for international students to get admission to pursue PhD degrees at universities in the U.S. This scholarship is a gate of hope for international students. My goal is to attain a PhD degree and enrich my experience in biomedical research by working with a diverse team of researchers, with the hope that a few years down the road I can carry this experience back to my home country and inspire other potential female scientists to pursue a similar path. This scholarship puts me on a track towards my goal. I am very appreciative that the Curci Foundation makes it possible for female international students to achieve their academic goals and become part of the rich diversity at U.S. universities.”

Nikhita Kirthivasan

First Year Student, Biomedical Sciences PhD Program

Nikhita KirthivasanNikhita Kirthivasan was born in Chennai, India and grew up in Bengaluru, India. She pursued her undergraduate studies in bachelor of science (research) at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, India, where she majored in biology. Over the four years of her undergraduate, she worked in different fields of immunology; starting in computational immunology, she explored how T-cell differentiation cues can be modelled using Boolean logic. She subsequently worked in the Immunoengineering Laboratory with Professor Siddharth Jhunjhunwala to understand the sub-cellular fate of phagocytosed materials in innate immune cells and observed that phagosome maturation was cargo dependent. She then worked in Professor Siddharth Jhunjhunwala and Professor Ramray Bhat’s laboratories on understanding changes in cellular behavior post phagocytosis. She observed that post phagocytosis in Dictyostelium discoideum, the cell’s migration ability was altered depending on the size of the phagocytosed substances. Over her third summer and final year of her undergraduate, she worked in Professor Dan Littman’s laboratory at New York University Langone, where she focused on understanding the effects of VIP neuropeptide signaling on immune cells in the gut using various mouse models. As Nikhita enters the PhD program at UCSF, her main research interests are in cellular immunology, with a specific interest in decoding communication cues amongst immune cells and other cells of the body.

What it means to be a Curci Scholar:

"Growing up, I wondered why scientists without borders did not exist, an international community of researchers doing humanitarian science across countries and institutions, much like Doctors Without Borders. Naturally, I was thrilled to hear about the Curci Scholarship since it is such a unique scholarship, which begins to enable such visions. As I embark upon a new journey in my scientific career at UCSF, I feel blessed to be supported by a fellowship dedicated to increasing the recruitment of women and international students. I am glad to be joining this wonderful community of Curci Scholars, filled with thoughtful researchers. I have loved participating in outreach and mentorship activities, working towards achieving educational equity through several different organizations such as the Notebook Drive and Reap Benefit. I am looking forward to doing the same at UCSF. It is truly exciting to be able to work with passionate researchers in making our community more diverse, inclusive and equitable."

Chloe (Seoyun) Kong

First Year Student, Bioengineering PhD Program

Chloe (Seoyun) KongChloe (Seoyun) Kong was born and raised in South Korea. She attended Rice University in Houston, Texas, where she studied materials science and nanoengineering. Under the mentorship of Dr. Pulickel Ajayan, Chloe engaged in projects centered around the functionalization of diamond surfaces and the synthesis of a novel heat-dissipative nanomaterial composite. While working on these projects, she grew a fascination for understanding the structure and interaction of matter at the nanoscale and the tools necessary to bring about changes at the macroscale. Over time, Chloe’s interests slowly gravitated towards exploring how principles and techniques from materials science could help tackle human health challenges, a new goal driven by her personal experiences and a newfound appreciation for biology. Chloe joined Dr. Raghu Kalluri’s lab at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, where she worked on developing a microfluidic platform for cancer diagnosis. This platform leverages the unique biophysical properties of cancer exosomes to dissect exosome heterogeneity, thus yielding valuable insights into the patients’ disease states. Overall, Chloe’s undergraduate education and research experience were crucial in shaping her interest in understanding how the mechanical properties of cells and tissues and the forces applied to them affect normal biological processes and disease progression. Ultimately, Chloe aspires to apply her findings to develop enhanced biomaterial constructs for therapeutic and modeling purposes.

What it means to be a Curci Scholar:

"My journey as a woman in STEM has been marked by various challenges. However, I consider myself fortunate to have met mentors who guided me through these obstacles and provided me with opportunities that have led me to where I am today. The Curci Scholarship inspires me to carry forward the same chain of mentorship that played a pivotal role in my academic journey. As a PhD student at UCSF and UC Berkeley, I plan to engage in outreach initiatives that aim to make higher education and research more accessible to students from underrepresented backgrounds. Moreover, I intend to utilize my PhD experience not only to build the skills and knowledge necessary to ask critical questions and find answers but also to learn how to become a better mentor for future students. I am deeply honored to be selected as a Curci Scholar, and I wholeheartedly appreciate the support provided to women and international students in life sciences PhD programs."

Chang Liu

First Year Student, Tetrad PhD Program

Chang LiuChang Liu was born in Maoming, China but grew up in Aurora, Colorado. She received her bachelor's degree in integrative physiology from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her first research experience conducted in Dr. Christopher Lowry's lab was pivotal in piquing her interest in microbes. During this time, her project focused on comparing the compositional differences in the gut microbiota of laboratory and wild-caught rats to explore the effects of laboratory domestication on rodent microbiomes. Chang was awarded both the CU Boulder Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) grant and the Biological Sciences Initiative (BSI) scholarship for her research. After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in 2020, Chang joined Dr. Ashley Wolf's lab at UC Berkeley where she explored how diet impacts mammalian gut microbiomes using gnotobiotic mice. Chang is currently interested in microbiology-related research but is excited to explore new fields of research during her rotations at UCSF! Outside of research, she enjoys playing with her cat, cooking delicious food, and traveling around the world.

What it means to be a Curci Scholar:

"As a first-generation student, I am incredibly honored to have been selected as a recipient of the Curci Scholarship. Receiving this fellowship signifies an opportunity for me to serve as an inspiration to other students, particularly those who share similar backgrounds. Through my role as a mentor to many first-generation college students, I have witnessed the transformative impact of representation within the STEM field. I am grateful to the Shurl and Kay Curci Foundation for their commitment to supporting women and international students that are dedicated to scientific research. With the support of the Curci Foundation, I am committed to utilizing my knowledge and experiences to continue educating and uplifting future generations of aspiring young scientists."