UA BioMed Students Earn National Recognition

Of 1,300 research presentations, five by UA students received national recognition.
Dec. 7, 2010
The UA's Minority Access to Research Careers members and staff.
The UA's Minority Access to Research Careers members and staff.
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Five University of Arizona undergraduate students were recognized for poster presentations highlighting their summer research projects at the annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.

Four of the students are UA Minority Access to Research Careers, or MARC, scholars, a National Institutes of Health program that works to prepare minority undergraduate students for biomedical research careers.

The program led by Marc Tischler, UA professor of chemistry and biochemistry, provides mentored faculty research opportunities over one summer and academic junior and senior opportunties on the UA campus. In their second summer, students are paired with researchers at other higher-learning institutions throughout the country.  

The MARC program provides stipends for the students in their junior and senior years and pays for the travel involved for their summer research project.

It's no summer vacation as the students have ten weeks to plan and conduct their research, which is presented during the annual conference in November.

During this year's conference, there were 1,300 poster presentations and 137 awards – fewer than 11 percent received awards. The UA showcased 15 student poster presentations with one-third of the presenters gaining recognition for their work.

"The UA's MARC program had one in three student research projects awarded. Each year we never have more than 12 to 14 presentations and regularly get two to four winners every year," Tischler said.

In the past five years during this meeting, MARC trainees have garnered 14 such awards, attesting to the program's validity.

The awardees represented three majors in three different UA colleges (the first four students are with the MARC program):

  • Jeannie Camarillo (physiology)
  • Wana Mathieu (biochemistry & molecular biophysics)
  • Cynthia Sandoval (physiology)
  • Gabriel Winston-McPherson (biochemistry & molecular biophysics)
  • Beatrice Abiero (public health)

The students recognized for their work in the MARC program had a vague idea of what research entailed upon entering the UA. Now, they have modified their career goals to include graduate studies with a research concentration.

"I never thought as an undergraduate I would have this type of opportunity. I was pre-med upon entering the UA but am now focusing on a research career," said Sandoval. She conducted research at Gerstner Sloan-Kettering in New York on the process of cell self-digestion, known as autophagy. Her research included learning how to capture video of the cell's activity using time-lapsed confocal microscopy.

"My work was the last element needed to produce a research paper highlighting this process as a possible form of cancer suppression," she added.

Camarillo, an honors student, also conducted research at Sloan-Kettering. She researched characterizing the fusion protein AML1-ETO, which is associated with the development of acute myeloid leukemia. Her work will aid in the development of specific splicing modulatory compounds for new therapeutic treatments for the disease.  

Winston-McPherson conducted her summer research at Hunter College in New York and worked on a drug to suppress the harmful effects of the drug MDMA, widely known as Ecstasy: "Being able to work on a project that combined biology and chemistry with the goal of developing a drug derived from a plant was very exciting."

She said the first year of conducting research at the UA campus was essential training to prepare her for the intensive second summer research project. While in New York, her research focused on the modification of the plant nandina and its naturally occurring alkaloid nantenine, which has shown to be a suppressant of the cognitive and physiological effects of MDMA.

Mathieu wants to combine medicine with research upon graduating. She conducted research in the laboratory of Catharine Smith, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the UA's College of Pharmacy, studying how valproic acid impacts glucocorticoid receptor-regulated gene expression. The study brought new insights into the epigenetic or activation or deactivation mechanisms of gene expression.  

It was Mathieu's first experience conducting research, and now she is excited at the variety of research opportunities and the interdisciplinary aspects of the field. "Having a research background will allow me to be able to provide my patients with information and treatment using the latest research discoveries – including my own."

Abiero is not involved in the MARC program but also was recognized for her summer research project. She was a scholar in the MARC program at Penn State University.

Her project focused on identifying how social support (from parents or peers),  psychosocial factors and youth perceptions about physical activity affect physical activity and physical activities outcomes among 7th and 8th grade students.

She used a data set collected by her Penn State mentors collected from more than 500 students in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Analysis of the data from the project revealed significant correlations between social influences, positive youth perceptions about physical activity and physical activity outcomes with the strongest influence among social influence and psychosocial factors on youth perceptions about physical activity.

"I chose the UA because of its public health program – it is one of the few in the nation to offer a degree as an undergraduate," she said. She is in the process of developing a full manuscript on her research activities with the aim of getting it published. She graduates in May and will pursue graduate studies in public health policies.       

Tischler said 65 percent of the students go on to doctoral or medical degree/doctoral programs – and many go directly to medical school: "We are above the average nationally for similar programs."

For many students in the MARC program, Tischler said, it is the first time they have traveled out of state: "This program provides them with the opportunity to learn about the opportunities in research and experience a whole new world. They truly come back changed-knowing they can do this."

Second semester juniors are welcome to apply to the program. Applications are due February 1.