Long before her first day at the University of Arizona, Lindsey Chew knew she wanted to work in a research laboratory. Before she was even on campus, she contacted various scientists, looking for an undergraduate opening in a lab. When she met Rajesh Khanna, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson, Chew knew she had found her place at the UA.
"On my first day of college, I was in the lab to meet Dr. Khanna," Chew said. "It's been a really wonderful place to grow as a student and as a neuroscientist, and to really foster a love for science."
For four years, Chew, who is from Chandler, Arizona, has diligently pursued a degree in neuroscience and cognitive science while working in Khanna's lab. On April 18, she will take those experiences to Washington, D.C., as part of a group of undergraduates selected to participate in Posters on the Hill.
Posters on the Hill gives students the opportunity to showcase their research to congressional members, meet with their representatives and learn about advocacy for undergraduate research. This is the 22nd renewal of the annual event sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research and the American Chemical Society.
Chew is one of 60 students or student teams selected from hundreds of applicants, whose research topics range from early Jesuit scholars and 3-D bioprinted muscle constructs to African-American lead miners and the use of artificial neural networks to predict wildfire growth. Chew, the only finalist from Arizona, will present posters highlighting non-opioid pain relief research.
"I'll be presenting an overview of some of the different projects going on in the Khanna lab, all of which triangulate on the goal of drug discovery for identifying novel pain therapeutics," Chew said. "I've been involved in different efforts to not only develop novel small molecules, but also identify natural plants from the Southwest and to see what kinds of compounds we can pull out of our natural landscapes that may have therapeutic value as pain relievers."
Khanna's lab has been instrumental in inventing a new class of non-opioid compounds to treat pain. Animal testing has shown that the drug candidates are more effective than morphine, non-addictive and non-toxic at high doses. The UA has licensed the compounds to Regulonix, which was co-founded by Khanna, his wife, May Khanna; an assistant professor of pharmacology; and Vijay Gokhale, senior research scientist at the UA's BIO5 Institute, with the help of Tech Launch Arizona.
"Most people are extremely aware of the opioid crisis that the U.S. and other countries are going through, so to be able to work on something that really hits home for a lot of Americans has been special," said Chew, who earned high praise from Khanna for her performance in the lab.
"I really like to get students at a very early stage in their undergraduate careers, and then see them blossom," Khanna said, adding that Chew, like all undergraduate students, started with little knowledge of how to properly conduct experiments. "In the course of six to nine months, she learned the procedures, was able to achieve independence and could reproduce the data on her own. That is where students really start to flourish and blossom into fledgling scientists."
After mastering one difficult technique — live calcium imaging in neurons — Chew approached Khanna with an unusual request. She wanted to learn a sophisticated and even more difficult technique for examining ion channels, called electrophysiology. Khanna never had heard of an undergraduate trying, let alone mastering, the skill.
"It's as much art as it is science," Khanna said of the procedure, which is also known as the patch-clamp technique. "Lindsey stuck with it and is now a bona fide patcher. She's been patching for the last two years, and her recordings are indistinguishable from postdocs who have been doing it for tens of years. She is in a league of her own."
Chew, who was a 2014 Flinn Scholar, will graduate from the UA in May. She has been accepted to Duke University's Medical Scientist Training Program, an intensive seven-to-eight-year program that leads to dual M.D. and Ph.D. degrees.
"I came into college with an interest in clinical medicine, but had no idea that science was — and is — as beautiful and magnificent as I've discovered here in the lab," Chew said. "I think there has to be a tie between physicians and scientists, in not only finding out what bothers patients, but how can those facts and those symptoms then inform the research that we pursue?
"In the same way, I think research really does need to be promoted to the public," added Chew, who has joined Khanna on KXCI's "Thesis Thursday" radio program. "This experience has really shown me the importance of being able to let others know that we are doing cool science."
While Khanna won't be attending Posters on the Hill — he and his wife should be welcoming a new son any day now — Chew won't be short on support. Her family has always stood behind her, and her younger sister, Lydia Chew, is especially excited about Posters on the Hill.
"She is currently working as a Senate page at the State Capitol, so she has a lot of face time with some of the people that I might be meeting in and around Arizona, even if I won't see them in D.C.," Lindsey said of Lydia, who is majoring in political science and economics.
"I'm in the process of trying to convince her to do science policy. I think we would make a good team."