Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 16:15

Assumption Students Partner with Science Faculty on Laboratory Research

Receive Hands-on Experience in Designing, Implementing Experiments

This summer, Assumption College students collaborated with faculty on innovative scientific research. Through this enriching experience, the students discovered how they can apply their scientific skills to make a difference in society—and take their place as the next generation of scholars and scientists.

Assumption’s Natural Sciences Department annually awards summer research grants that enable faculty and undergraduate students to work together on projects exploring diverse research topics such as DNA repair, breast cancer, viral infections, growth nerve cells, synthesis of anti-cancer chemicals and other scientific areas. This summer, 11 students were selected to participate. They received 10 weeks of hands-on experience, working in Assumption’s state-of-the-art laboratories, learning new scientific techniques, mastering instrumentation, designing and implementing experiments, analyzing data, and presenting their findings in weekly meetings with peers and faculty advisors.

“This summer research program offers Assumption students an opportunity to work in a small research group with a faculty member and fellow students. Faculty-student research is critical to train our next generation of scientists and medical doctors,” said Aisling Dugan, assistant professor of biology at Assumption. “As such, this summer research program offers Assumption students an opportunity to work in a small group with a faculty member and their fellow students and be trained on dissecting scientific literature, designing and implementing experiments, and analyzing and presenting their findings.

“The goal is for our students to be able to answer important scientific questions and to think critically and analytically when approaching new problems,” Dugan added. “To that end, Assumption research students gain an enormous amount of confidence and independence through this experience.”

Some funding for the student research comes from the Natural Sciences Department’s Summer Fellowship Program and the College’s Honors Program, although some students have chosen to volunteer their time to gain this valuable experience. Past summer research students have been successful in securing positions in graduate schools and medical schools such as Yale University, Brown University, University of Massachusetts Medical School and Dartmouth College.

Elise Prayson, a senior biotechnology and molecular biology major from Dayton, Ohio, spent this summer researching the gene crabp1, which is believed to promote pregnancy-associated breast cancer. She was mentored by Assistant Professor of Biology Jessica McCready, who taught her cell-culturing techniques, how to design and troubleshoot polymerase chain reaction (PCR), as well as how to use microscopy automation and image analysis software.

“Student-faculty research at Assumption College is an amazing chance to gain lab experience and receive one-on-one guidance from a professor in the field,” Prayson explained.

Senior Lauren Pepi, a chemistry major from Franklin, Mass., spent the summer researching with Professor Dugan conditions that make human cells susceptible to BK virus, a human pathogen that leads to kidney loss in some kidney transplant recipients—a topic, Pepi noted, which has not seen much study.

“I’m hoping my research could lead to a treatment for kidney rejection and also help people live easier and happier lives,” said Pepi, who plans to work toward obtaining a Ph.D. in either biochemistry or analytical chemistry before pursuing a career in medical research. “It could lead to new developments in treatments.”

Senior Hieu Nguyen of Rockland, Mass., shared her sentiment, explaining that future Assumption students may use his research on montamine analogs as a guide to their own investigations as they probe further into the subject.

“Hopefully they will be able to either expand on my discoveries, or develop a different project based on what I found,” said Nguyen, who aspires to either attend medical school or pursue a Doctor of Pharmacy degree.

The students agreed that student-faculty collaboration was a vital benefit to their experiments, as well as their Assumption education. Sarah Williams of Burrillville, R.I., who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in biology, said Assumption faculty inspired her research efforts.

“The research opportunities at Assumption enhance our skills and help us prepare for our future careers,” said Williams, whose goal is to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience and behavior. “It is one thing to read primary science journals about research, but another to actually be able to do the hands-on research yourself.”

The summer 2014 participants were:

  • Tim Bates ’15, a biotechnology and molecular biology and mathematics double major from Bellingham, Mass., worked with Associate Professor of Physics Georgi Georgiev to research carbon nanotube interactions between polymers and liquid crystals complex fluids.
  • Madelaine Duarte ’16, a biology major from Fall River, Mass., worked with Professor David Crowley on “The Superhero Haloferax: Isolating UV Ultra-Resistant Microbes.” Haloferax volcanii is a microbial species originally isolated from the Dead Sea. In an effort to better understand how these and other organisms deal with naturally high levels of ultra-violet (UV) exposure, Duarte developed assays to isolate mutants that are both UV-resistant and sensitive. She has begun characterizing novel mutants and will continue her research after she returns from London, where she will spend the fall 2014 semester as part of Assumption’s Study Abroad Program.
  • Kaitlin Henry ’17, a chemistry and mathematics double major from Weare, N.H., researched mechanisms of organization increase in complex systems with Professor Georgiev.
  • Abigail Heroth ’15, a biotechnology and molecular biology major from Johnstown, N.Y., worked with Biology Professor McCready on the project “The Transcriptional Regulation of crabp1.” Crabp1 is a protein that promotes breast cancer diagnosed after pregnancy. Heroth explored one way in which the amount of crabp1 protein increases in cells isolated from a mouse’s mammary gland. She treated cells with thyroid hormone and measured how much crabp1 was present in the cells. Her data indicate that thyroid hormone may be one way to increase crabp1 in the mammary gland. Heroth will continue her research project with Professor McCready during the 2014-2015 academic year. 
  • Kristine LeClair ’15, a biotechnology and molecular biology major from Westminster, Mass., worked with Biology Professor McCready to determine if the thyroid hormone increases the amount of the protein fatty acid synthase in cells isolated from the mouse mammary gland. She treated cells with thyroid hormone and measured the amount of fatty acid synthase protein in the cells. LeClair’s data indicate that thyroid hormone decreases fatty acid synthase in the cells. Her discovery may link crabp1 (the protein of interest studied in the lab) to fatty acid synthase in breast cancers diagnosed after pregnancy. LeClair will continue her research project with Professor McCready during this academic year.
  • Cassie Lincoln ’15, a psychology major from North Adams, Mass., worked at UMass Medical School with Assumption Associate Professor of Biology Michele Lemons to investigate nervous system development. Lincoln took advantage of the model organism, C. elegans to study how neurons navigate to their appropriate targets during development. She will continue to work with Professor Lemons during the fall semester to further investigate molecules that drive neuronal path finding and proper formation of the nervous system.
  • Hieu Nguyen ’15 is a chemistry major from Rockland, Mass. In collaboration with Professor Dugan and Chemistry Professor Elizabeth Colby Davie, Hieu screened three compounds synthesized by Professor Colby Davie for their effect of the bacteria, S. aureas and E.coli. The compounds were related to a molecule isolated from a flower species called montaime, which has been reported to have anti-cancer and antimicrobial properties. Nguyen will continue to pursue this research project as part of his honors thesis work during the 2014-2015 academic year.
  • Lauren Pepi ’15, a chemistry major from Franklin, Mass., spent her summer working with Professor Dugan researching the human pathogen, BK virus, which causes complications and organ loss in kidney transplant recipients. Her project investigated how the stage of growth that the kidney cell is in contributes to BK virus entry and infection. Pepi will follow up on this research in spring 2015, when she takes an independent study course in biology.
  • Elise Prayson ’15 is a biotechnology and molecular biology major from Dayton, Ohio. She analyzed the role of the thyroid hormone in lipid accumulation with Biology Professor Jessica McCready. Fat cells present in the mammary gland of a non-pregnant mouse will normally accumulate lipid given the correct conditions. Prayson tested the hypothesis that crabp1, a protein that prevents lipid accumulation, could change the behavior of these cells and cause them to stop accumulating lipid. Her data indicate that treatment of cells with thyroid hormone increases crabp1 protein levels and prevent the cells from accumulating lipid. Prayson will continue her research project with Professor McCready during the 2014-2015 academic year. 
  • Nicole Stantial ’15 is a biotechnology and molecular biology major from Peabody, Mass. She worked with Professor David Crowley investigating transcription-coupled repair as a DNA repair mechanism in Haloferax volcanii. Stantial has modified a sophisticated assay to test whether this unique microorganism preferentially repairs DNA damage found in genes that are being actively expressed. This efficient repair system might help explain how these micro-organism survive and flourish under the harsh solar exposure in places like the Dead Sea. Stantial is continuing her work on this and other related projects as part of her honors thesis work during the 2014-2015 academic year.
  • Sarah Williams ’14, a biology major from Burrillville, R.I., volunteered with Professor Dugan to determine if the elafin, a protein produced by the human immune system and mucosal surfaces, can help inhibit BK virus infection.

Read about research opportunities at Assumption College.

Kimberly Dunbar, Director of Public Affairs, Assumption College @AssumptionNews