Nicole Halmai is featured in AACR May Newsletter

May is National Cancer Research Month

Nicole Halmai is the recipient of the 2023 AACR-Bristol Meyers Squibb Cancer Disparities Research Fellowship.


Gastric cancer (GC) is a significant cause of cancer incidence and mortality disparities among Hispanic/Latinos (HLs). HLs are approximately twice as likely to be diagnosed with and die from GC compared with non-Latino whites and are also more often diagnosed at earlier ages but at later stages of disease, for which survival rates are significantly worse. Despite this high burden of disease, relatively little data exists characterizing the molecular etiology of GC among HLs. This research will leverage existing genomic and epigenomic sequencing data from HLs with GC generated in a large multi-center NCI-funded study (U54 CA233306) to identify driver somatic epigenetic changes and genetic ancestry-associated germline risk loci that contribute to GC development, therapeutic response, and ultimately, health disparities among HLs in the US.


Dr. Halmai received her doctorate from the University of California (UC) Davis in 2019 in molecular, cellular and integrative physiology where she developed a novel genome editing platform for the functional modeling of cancer risk-associated variants. As a graduate student, Dr. Halmai was both an NIH-Initiative for Maximizing Student Development and NIH-Molecular and Cellular Biology T32 training fellow. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Davis Genome Center. Her research is focused on the development of pre-clinical cancer models and (epi)genomic data from racial/ethnic minority populations to advance cancer health equity for these communities.

Acknowledgement of Support

“I am exceedingly grateful to the AACR and Bristol-Myers Squibb for providing this opportunity. Being a Cancer Disparities Research Fellow will provide me with the support to advance my career in the field of cancer health disparities and, most importantly, give back to our communities of color through my research.”

2023 AACR-Bristol Meyers Squibb Fellowship Grantee

Poster Presentation at UCDavis 35th Annual Undergraduate Research Conference

Swati Pothukuchi presented her research on Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) research today.

Swati is a undergraduate researcher in the Carvajal-Carmona Lab. For the past year, she has been working independently on her own project to assess the prevalence of pathogenic variants within minority populations.

The project was prompted by Hugo Campos, a community Participant Ambassador for NIH All of Us program. Hugo is an advocate for HCM and has been wanting to address the research disparity in HCM for minorities. The NIH All of Us program provides researchers the ability access to explore next generation datasets for over 500K individuals.

Swati is currently working to identify known pathogenic variants and potentially pathogenic variants in participants with HCM and similar diseases. This research will assess the prevalence of known variants in minority populations and work to identify previously unknown potentially pathogenic variants that could help improve diagnosis of HCM.

She is utilizing existing clinical database such as ClinVar, OMIM, ClinGen to assess known pathogenic/likely pathogenic variants that have been clinically validated. She is also using whole genome sequencing datasets from All of Us to identify variants of unknown significance (VUS). VUSs will then be evaluated to identify computationally predicted pathogenic variants. Computational predictions will be based off current variant effect predictor software and databases (ie. AlphaMissense, CADD, Polyphen2, among others).

Association Offers Ladders of Opportunity to Hispanic Students

UC Davis Students, Faculty and Staff Benefit From Campus’ HACU Membership

by Julia Ann Easley March 05, 2024

Fifth-year student Jasmine Diaz and Professor Luis Carvajal-Carmona spoke at a HACU conference, and the conversation led to an invitation to work in his cancer lab. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

A series of five deaths in her extended family had devastated Jasmine Diaz, and the neurobiology, physiology and behavior major was on academic probation through 2022. She had given up her dream to become a doctor or even to continue in science.

Today, the fifth-year student is thrilled to be working in the cancer lab of Professor Luis Carvajal-Carmona, is recommitted to a career in science, and has a passion to help underrepresented and first-generation students.

“I’m a stronger person and a strong advocate for people like myself,” Diaz said.

What happened in between? Some mentoring, tutoring and an invitation to the annual conference of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, or HACU.

Since 2005, UC Davis has been a member of HACU, the only national association representing existing and emerging Hispanic-Serving Institutions, or HSIs. While the campus nears federal recognition as an HSI, its membership continues to bring benefits to students, faculty and staff.

Faculty and staff have opportunities for collaboration and professional development. And students can attend conferences to learn and network, win scholarships and complete corporate and government internships available through the organization.

Chancellor Gary S. May has been a HACU board member since October 2022 and serves on its government relations committee.

‘Doors do open’

A closeup of Jasmine Diaz
Jasmine Diaz

At HACU’s annual conference in Chicago in October, Diaz said, she attended informational and motivational workshops – including one on home ownership. At a dinner there leaders of UC Davis’ Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DEI, initiative, she also shared her heartbreak to have left science behind.

Diaz later spoke with Carvajal-Carmona, associate vice chancellor for academic diversity and a professor of biochemistry and molecular medicine, who invited her to work in his lab. Carvajal-Carmona, who is a first-generation college graduate, has a strong record of supporting and mentoring students like Diaz and in 2021 received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research.

In the lab, several researchers are mentoring Diaz to help her fulfill her aspirations of going to graduate or professional school. Diaz said she wants to inspire the students she works with as a peer ambassador with Undergraduate Admissions and a student outreach assistant with the Early Academic Outreach Program. “I use myself as an example,” she said. “Even if it’s a roller-coaster journey, doors do open.”

In October, HACU representatives came to UC Davis and shared information about internships and scholarships — more than $1 million was awarded in 2022. About 90 students attended the October session.

‘It shaped my passion’

HACU played a role in Rodrigo Bonilla’s career as the director of Chicanx Latinx Retention Initiative and the Center for Chicanx Latinx Academic Student Success.

“One of the major reasons I’m in higher education — I’m truly the byproduct of this organization that led me in that direction,” Bonilla said.

Rodrigo Bonilla stands amid artwork.
Rodrigo Bonilla, director of the Chicanx Latinx Retention Initiative and the Center for Chicanx Latinx Academic Student Success, said training for a HACU internship shaped his passion for supporting students from similar backgrounds. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Having immigrated from Mexico at age 9, Bonilla had been a farmworker until he went to Washington State University in Pullman, where he studied agriculture food systems, agriculture economics and Spanish.

There, a mentor steered him toward a HACU internship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development unit in Davis in summer 2015 before he started a master’s degree in international agriculture development at UC Davis.

At the weeklong training for interns in Washington, D.C., Bonilla said, he “connected with people who supported students and opened doors.

“It shaped my passion for supporting students from similar backgrounds,” he said.

Bonilla joined UC Davis as a student affairs officer in 2018, became interim associate director for the Chicanx Latinx Retention Initiative and the Center for Chicanx Latin Academic Success in 2021 and was hired as director in March 2022.

Now pursuing a doctoral degree in educational leadership, Bonilla has regularly attended HACU conferences. At the annual conference in October, he presented on the academic retention model to support Latinx students at UC Davis. “It’s wild how it was a full circle moment for me,” Bonilla said.

Lina Mendez, director of the campus’s HSI initiative at UC Davis, and others have participated in leadership academies offered by HACU. “The fact that they’re thinking about how to prepare and train the leaders of the future is a really good mentoring opportunity,” she said.

Grants for HSI work

In addition to providing opportunities for students, faculty and staff, the association advocates for grant programs to improve access to and the quality of higher education for Hispanic students, said Antonio R. Flores, president and CEO of HACU.

“Part of our job is to increase those pots of money and relay to our institutions that they can use them for the benefit of underserved students,” he said.

Mendez said UC Davis learned about the California Regional K-16 Education Collaborative Grant Program through HACU. That gave UC Davis a head start in preparing what were successful applications, she said.

As a participant in three regions, UC Davis is using about $3 million in grants to help reduce inequities in higher education and workforce participation. The funding is helping support the campus’s outreach, recruitment and admission efforts including SAYS (Sacramento Area Youth Speaks); the Avenue programs in engineeringmedicine and biological sciences; and more.

Nearly two decades of help

UC Davis joined HACU — headquartered in San Antonio with regional offices in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento — almost two decades ago as an associate member, an institution whose Hispanic enrollment constitutes at least 10% of enrollment. In 2019, 2021, 2022 and 2024, UC Davis qualified as an HSI member, with at least 25% Hispanic enrollment at the undergraduate or graduate level or both.

UC Davis continues to pursue designation by the federal government as an HSI to allow it to apply for funding to support student success, innovation and institutional transformation, benefiting all students. The U.S. Department of Education grants the designation to institutions that first meet the threshold of having enrollment of undergraduate full-time equivalent students that is at least 25% as counted at the end of the award year — and then meet other criteria. By this definition, UC Davis had 24.6% Hispanic enrollment in fall 2023.

In October, Hispanic Outlook on Education Magazine recognized UC Davis as a top 100 university for Hispanic and Latino students in its annual lists. UC Davis ranked 31st for the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to Hispanic/Latino students (2,014) and 71st for total enrollment among four-year institutions (9,225).

Flores said UC Davis has been one of the most progressive universities in the nation in terms of diversity and inclusion. “We are delighted UC Davis is continuing as a role model for the rest of California and across the nation,” he added.

Media Resources

Media Contact:

Julia Ann Easley, News and Media Relations,, 530-219-4545

New outreach specialist will serve as liaison to tribal nations in the Sacramento region


Cancer center seeks to understand cancer burden of Northern California’s Indigenous peoples

Many Indigenous communities, including Native Americans in California, suffer from significant cancer health disparities, which are evident in high rates of death from colon, kidney, and stomach cancer. UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center recognizes the unfair cancer burden shouldered by Indigenous peoples and the unique combination of risk factors that may be contributing to the inequity.

Diets lacking fresh produce and other healthful foods, as well as limited access to health care screenings and care, increase the cancer risk. This is particularly true for rural communities that make up a significant proportion of tribal lands. Environmental exposures and genetics also can play a role in the cancer risks threatening Native people.

The cancer center wants to understand these disparities, so its Center for Advancing Cancer Health Equity created a new tribal community engagement liaison role. UC Davis Genome Center postdoctoral researcher Nicole Halmai was appointed to the position and is working to identify cancer health priorities for Indigenous peoples in the northern and central parts of California. She is also seeking to better understand the factors that might influence their willingness to take part in cancer precision medicine research.

Halmai’s current research is focused on the development of pre-clinical cancer models and epigenomic data from racial/ethnic minority populations to advance cancer health equity.

“Before we do anything else, we need to build partnerships with Indigenous communities and tribal leadership to guide cancer disparity research.”

Nicole Halmai, UC Davis Genome Center Postdoctoral Researcher

Personal connection

Halmai is passionate about building relationships with Native communities. That’s because she is Diné, a citizen of the Navajo Nation. Her mother grew up on the Navajo Nation, located in the Four Corners region of the Southwest.

Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, Halmai spent every summer with her maternal grandparents on the family’s 1,650 acres in the Navajo Nation. Halmai still visits her family’s land, where she and her husband were recently married in a traditional Navajo wedding ceremony.

New tribal outreach begins with building trust.

“California has the largest population of Native Americans in the country, but there is a certain level of distrust when it comes to medical care and biomedical research, given historical mistreatment of Native peoples and misuse of samples and data,” Halmai said. “Before we do anything else, we need to build partnerships with Indigenous communities and tribal leadership to guide cancer disparity research.”

Halmai said she feels building an advisory board is critical. She is hopeful that suggestions from the Native communities will eventually lead to community-driven research projects that will both help to improve Native representation in cancer precision medicine research and rectify cancer health disparities experienced among Native communities.

Along with recruiting for the advisory board, Halmai is generating commentary from community members by attending talking circles at local tribal events and health fairs, and asking people to take part in health surveys to help identify what is important to them.

“We are also working closely with Native community-focused health care providers to support cancer health and research education,” Halmai said. “Ultimately, one of our main goals is to support capacity-building efforts for tribal nations, allowing them to expand their own health care infrastructure and improve cancer care for their citizens.”

NCI renews major collaboration to find cancer cures for racially and ethnically diverse populations


Renewal of the first National Cancer Institute grant to fund a University of California Cancer Consortium research collaboration is inspiring UC scientists to continue their quest to develop targeted therapies to treat gastric cancer and non-small cell lung cancer.

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center serves as the lead research institution. It is also the only minority focused research center to have participated in the Patient-Derived Xenograft Development and Trial Center since its inception five years ago. The $5.2 million renewal of the NCI grant will span another five years.

Patient-derived xenografts (PDXs) are created by implanting tumor tissues from human patients into immunocompromised mice to create an environment that increases understanding of tumor development and spread. Other participants include all five University of California comprehensive cancer centers, and the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

The goal of the research alliance is to establish and characterize at least 120 new PDXs from racially diverse populations and study them to better understand the specific genetic factors that may underlie certain cancer disparities. The scientists also are testing precision medicine therapies that may be successful in overcoming gene mutations specific or more common to certain races or ethnicities.

“The impact of the collaborative is to understand the biological processes involved in cancer health disparities and to develop effective new treatments that we can then offer to patients as clinical trials.”


Carvajal-Carmona said researchers will implant human fresh tumor samples into mice. The goal is to assess how ancestry influences patients’ response to anti-cancer drugs and what types of drug combinations will work more effectively in certain populations. The models and data generated in the study will be made available as a resource for UC scientists and those around the country.

Nicole Halmai – Awarded 2023 Upstream Research Center Fellowship

Congratulations, Nicole!!!

This week the awardees were announced for the Upstream Research Fellowship Program. The Upstream Research Center Fellowship program provides support for early-career scholars that are advancing cancer health equity through research, practice, and capacity building in areas of persistent poverty in Northern California. The center was developed through collaboration with a diverse set of community partnerships and scientists from UC Davis, UC San Francisco, and Stanford University.

Nicole Halmai, a postdoctoral researcher in our lab, was 1 of the 3 scholars selected for the 2023 Fellowship.

Fellowship Award Announcement:

Luis’ Work Highlighted in Summer Issue of Synthesis

To download Synthesis Summer 2023 PDF

In this month’s UCDavis Comprehensive Cancer Center publication “Synthesis”, our lab’s members and work was highlighted.

On Page 3, Luis’ appointment to the UCDavis Office of Academic Diversity was announced. He’s working on

The goal is to empower equity leaders and elevate the work of diverse faculty members as they solve global problems. Other priorities include supporting equitable ecosystems
for student opportunity through the DEI’s Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) initiative, and modeling equity and inclusion in higher education.

Synthesis Summer 2023

On Page 12, Luis’ work on gastric cancer disparities in Latinos is highlighted:

“Unlike in other countries where overall gastric cancer incidence is high and where there are preventive programs that identify gastric cancer early, we do not have gastric cancer screening programs in this country,” Carvajal-Carmona said.

“On the prevention side, in our ongoing studies of gastric cancer predisposition, we hope this data will help to develop ways of preventing or catching gastric cancer earlier,” Carvajal-Carmona explained. “Early
detection is key to improving patient outcomes as treatments are more effective. Using genetics, we are trying to understand why some people get gastric cancer and others don’t. It is our hope that our studies of gastric tumors will find their vulnerabilities and the combinations of mutations that can be
targeted with effective therapies, which can be moved to clinical trials.”

Luis Carvajal-Carmona, Summer 2023 Synthesis

On Page 13, Luis’ grant award from the NCI for Global Health for Health equity cancer researchers was announced. He and Laura Fejerman will be awarded $250,000 annually to train at least 4 scientists from Latin American countries per year.

On Page 35, Luis’ work as the founding director of the Cancer Center’s Center for Advancing Cancer Health Equities it hightlighed

Celebrating National DNA Day 2023 with All Of Us California

Caitlin Leong (Undergraduate Researcher) and Paul Lott (Assistant Project Scientist) participated on a All Of Us panel in Sacramento, CA. They presented on how All Of Us is changing the research dataset paradigm – providing a rich genomics dataset that is available to all researchers.

“As a researcher, it’s easy to get started – just go to and register. Depending on the level of access that you need, it should take less than 8 hours to register, and get through the necessary training.” – Paul Lott, Ph.D.

If you aren’t already a participant, please join All of Us.