Having transferred to Tucson from Boston after his wife earned a University of Arizona graduate position, Aram B. Cholanians was hard pressed to find work related to his long-term research interests.
Cholanians, who previously had been involved in research, enrolled at the UA, started working in a lab and also took work at a local restaurant.
But he soon learned about the Undergraduate Biology Research Program, one that involves students in University research through matching funds from UA faculty and external sources.
"When I got to UBRP, I found that it was a better opportunity," said Cholanians, a UA graduating senior majoring in molecular and cellular biology. "I do what I like to do, and research is what I want to do for the rest of my life."
UBRP will continue to aid students such as Cholanians after receiving yet another grant, this time from the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, or ASPET.
At $27,000, the association's three-year ASPET Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, or ASPET SURF, grant will support up to 15 UA students participating in the UA program, also known as UBRP, who are working directly with members of the association.
The funding marks the 20th consecutive year ASPET has provided funding to the UA to support the education and training of students who intend to pursue careers in pharmacy and toxicology.
"We appreciate the support we have gotten from ASPET all these years," said Carol Bender, UBRP's director who also has been the principal investigator on the ASPET SURF grant since it was first awarded in 1991.
"The association has been very generous to us," she added.
Students receiving ASPET funding also become members of the organization and have opportunities to publish, present and network, and also pursue additional funding.
"It's a great way to start them off on their careers," said Bender, also a faculty member in the UA's molecular and cellular biology department.
Among the UA alumni who have been supported by the program, 26 have gone on to be researchers at various institutions, 27 are serving as physicians and others are working as pharmacists, attorneys and educators, Bender noted.
A number of other organizations and agencies have and continue to invest in UBRP and its students. They include the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Students funded by ASPET SURF are currently investigating a range of conditions, including chronic pathological pain resulting from nerve injury and ways that arsenic in water can result in human bladder cells turning into cancer cells.
For Cholanians, who presented his research at the Society for Neuroscience's national conference in November, having the research experience through UBRP has proven invaluable.
"Without UBRP, I don't know if this would have been possible," said Cholanians, whose trip was partially funded by a UBRP grant with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Cholanians, who has applied to two UA graduate programs, is investigating the neurotoxicity of methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, also commonly known as Ecstasy. He is as a member of the laboratory headed up by Terrence Monks, who heads the UA's pharmacology and toxicology department in the College of Pharmacy.
In the case of MDMA use, one side effect is an increased depressed state, which is likely a result of lower levels of serotonin in the brain, he said.
Strangely, this decrease in serotonin does not occur in the brain with a direct injection of MDMA.
So, Cholanians is attempting to understand why the death of neurons in the brain appears only to occur after a systemic dose of MDMA. Ultimately, he wants to explain how an individual's condition worsens over time through the use of MDMA.
"Understanding the mechanisms by which MDMA elicits its neurotoxic effects, especially with regards to microglial involvement, may shed light on reasons why other conditions and diseases – like the neurodegenerative diseases, Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer's – become more severe over time," Cholanians said.
"I am not trying to figure out how it starts, but how the microglial cells are affected later on," said Cholanians, who has presented his research at local and national conferences. "If we can better understand the immune system it could have a big effect on medicine."