Three rising juniors experience a science-filled summer
July 29, 2010 By Marla Sweitzer
department at the Vanderbilt Summer Science Academy.
Aaron Edwards ’12 is interning with the Vanderbilt Summer
Undergraduate Research Program in Chemical Biology.
Laura Hench ’12 is studying structural biology and microbiology
with the Vanderbilt Summer Undergraduate Research Program.
Whether they are traveling, volunteering, making some extra cash or a combination of the three, Centre College students make good use of their time in the summer. This is also the season when students take the opportunity to conduct research or complete internships, which is what three juniors find themselves doing at Vanderbilt University this summer.
Louesa Akin ’12, a biochemistry and molecular biology (BMB) major and computer science minor of Paducah, Ky., is interning in the pharmacology department at the Vanderbilt Summer Science Academy. “The most valuable aspect of doing research this summer has been having the opportunity to see if research is something I might want to do as a career,” Akin says.
Akin, who researched at Centre last summer with chemistry professor Dr. Jennifer Muzyka, decided that she wanted to spend another summer in a science program. Her research involves “benchmarking a computer program that will fold a protein using its secondary structure elements,” she says.
Akin notes that the courses she has taken while at Centre have aided in her research. “I’ve had to use a little bit of my coding knowledge from computer science in order to be able to execute some of the programs I’ve been using. And having had a semester of BMB is essential to understanding proteins which I’ve also worked with both summers,” she says.
In addition to researching from 9 to 5 each day, lunch breaks provide access to additional resources, including guest speakers who discuss graduate schools, MD/Ph.D. programs or their own research. The program has also sponsored several trips that have enabled Akin to experience Nashville.
“Centre has definitely given me this opportunity that I’m almost certain I’d not have been able to do if I’d gone to a larger school,” she says.
Aaron Edwards ’12 of Henderson, Ky., is interning in the Vanderbilt Summer Undergraduate Research Program in Chemical Biology. Classified as an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates), the program is a 10-week research internship held on Vanderbilt’s campus.
The mission of the program is to introduce students to “the excitement and importance of research in chemical biology through a mix of educational and research activities,” Edwards says.
Edwards is working in the lab of polymer chemist Dr. Eva Harth. An average workload for Edwards is about 50-60 hours a week of lab time.
Edwards’s project is multi-faceted. “The lab works with a polyester nanoparticle that has numerous applications including targeted drug delivery and transport of small molecules across the body,” Edwards says. “I’m working on synthesizing multiple sizes of this nanoparticle system. From this foundation, I’ll be attaching several substituents, including a targeting peptide that’s only recognized by cancer cells, a dye that can trace the particles throughout the body and a specific anti-cancer drug. Once all of these are attached to the nanoparticle, they can be injected into the bloodstream, where irradiated cancer cells will recognize the targeting peptide and endocytose the nanoparticle (with drug still attached). The drug will then release inside only the cancer cell, sending the cell into programmed death.”
The researchers are able to test the numerous nanoparticle sizes through using a variety of models, ranging from mice to chick embryos. This way, they can determine “which might be more efficient than the rest,” Edwards says.
A BMB major, Edwards plans to pursue a career in the science field with an emphasis on research. “For the moment, I have aspirations of going to medical school with a specialty in research/medical oncology,” he says.
Edwards regards being able to view the entire process as an invaluable experience. “The program has allowed me to see the process and years of scientific research that must occur before clinical treatments for diseases/conditions can be placed on the market,” he says.
Structural Biology and Microbiology
Laura Hench ’12 of Lexington, Ky., is also working at the Vanderbilt Summer Undergraduate Research Program this summer. She is working in two different labs (with Dr. Walter Chazin, Center for Structural Biology and Dr. Eric Skaar, Microbiology and Immunology) that are collaborating on this project.
“I’m working on creating, purifying and running experiments on a mutant form of the protein calprotectin, one of the body’s natural antimicrobial responses to staph infections,” she says.
While Hench has always had a passion for the sciences, she has recently been able to refine that passion. She says that participating in the summer program “has helped me to narrow my focus to the biochemistry/molecular biology spectrum, and now I’m thinking about which areas within this field I find interesting enough to explore for the rest of my career.”
Hench has enjoyed working in two separate labs this summer. “I’ve realized how very unique the atmosphere of each specific lab can be, and I’ve gotten to see first-hand exactly how scientific teamwork happens,” she says. “It’s very exciting, and I love being right in the middle of the collaboration process.”
Hench’s hours are dependant on what experiments she is running each day. “On average, I’m in the wet lab from 8 in the morning until 6 at night,” Hench says. “If need be, I come in on the weekends or late at night to start and stop experimental runs.”
Outside the lab, Hench has taken advantage of the outdoors, including hiking and caving in Kentucky and Tennessee with new friends and fellow Centre researches Akin and Edwards.