03/12/2013 12:18 pm ET Updated May 12, 2013

Pay It Forward: Undergraduate Scholars Research

In a circle of UCLA undergraduate scholars, we held a lively discussion about mice brains in lab research. Aside from the gory mouse termination details, I was fascinated by the array of research topics. We were at the 2012-2013 Wasserman scholars reception, hosted by Chancellor Gene Block and Dean and Vice Provost Patricia Turner.

Each year, the Edie and Lew Wasserman foundation awards over 100 UCLA undergraduate student researchers with scholarships. Though Edie and Lew could not afford their own college education, their endowment allows students to pursue their academic research dreams. The Wassermans exemplify the importance to "pay it forward."

When we discussed our research, I was in awe of the bright minds around me. Amy Stuyvesant, a fourth year Geography/Environmental Studies student, works in a lab on plant-soil-microbe relations with factors of global change. Her thesis is on the effects of nutrient additions, simulating increased hurricane activity and on soil nutrient and tree growth in Puerto Rico. She hopes that she will be able to visit the study site this summer. Another Wasserman scholar, second year Biology student Scarlett Chen, researches the mechanisms of ion channels in the heart and how they function in cardioprotection. As a career, she hopes to work in primary care as a physician or specialize in cardiology or neurology.

For my senior thesis research, I interview college students across the country with invisible (hidden) disabilities. The crux of my thesis is to record stories of what it's like to be disabled but appear as a "normal" student. When I shared my thesis research with professors and the Wasserman family, I had a great "Aha!" Oprah moment of the important value that undergraduate research holds.

College is what you make of it. Though I have dabbled in research projects here and there, the highlight of my senior year is this year long research. As I document more and more stories of college students with hidden disabilities, the more passionate I become to spread awareness of hidden disabilities.

A few weeks ago, I stood on my virtual soapbox and shared this tweet: "All I want in life is to change at least one person's mind about what it means to be disabled and how disability can empower human beings." This thesis is the beginning of a lifelong pursuit to educate the world about hidden disabilities. And maybe, someday, I will be able to pay it forward to young students just like what Lew and Edie Wasserman did for me and my fellow research scholars.