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Extraordinary Experience

Related: Hands-on academics

Henrik Sjoberg in TrinidadThis past January found N.C. State University junior Henrik Sjoberg in Trinidad, sloshing through the Turure River in search of guppy population samples, trekking by night through jungles and frequently sleeping in a mosquito-netted (and easily capsized) hammock along river's edge. The zoology major also was conducting independent, mentored research destined for presentation at the university's 1999 Undergraduate Research Symposium.

The near-the-equator field work yielded a winning research project: "Sexual Selection and the Brain: Neuropeptide Cell Size and Courtship Behavior Are Correlated Across Populations of Male Guppies." In April it was one of 13 entries recognized as outstanding from among those of 130 participating students, and Sjoberg was one of six student winners from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Sjoberg's research evolved from laboratory work he had done with his project mentor, Dr. John R. Godwin of the department of zoology. His Trinidad field research in gathering specimens was guided by Dr. James Gilliam, also of that department, whom Sjoberg assisted in ecology-related research.

For Sjoberg, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to travel to Trinidad and work with the researchers who helped him gather his samples.

"Setting out to accomplish something, to do it and to see science working in front of you — those were the rewards," he says.

What he saw as a result of those 10 days in January and the on-campus laboratory analyses that followed was that something he had theorized was true.

Noting that upstream, seldom-threatened male guppies were more colorful and active than their downstream, highly preyed-upon counterparts, Sjoberg realized that here was a model of the conflict between natural and sexual selection. To prove it, he was looking for a cell size difference, between the two fish populations, in the neuropeptide AVT — a kind of neurotransmitter in the fish's brain responsible for sexual and aggressive behavior. He found the upstream fish had the larger AVT cells.

"This suggests this evolutionary conflict between natural selection versus sexual selection is driving the brain morphology of the fish," Sjoberg explains.

It also spells success for Sjoberg, he says, "because I hypothesized the difference and found the difference in AVT size."

The project paid off in other ways, as well: Sjoberg has received a fellowship from the W.M. Keck Foundation to further his research this summer. Likewise, the experience has changed his career aspirations. Whereas before, his goal was medical school and general practice, he now wants to go into medical research.

Applying what we've learned,
seeing how science works

None of this surprises Dr. George Barthalmus, the College's director of academic programs, who was among the six symposium judges. He sees Sjoberg's experience as right in line with the purposes of the event.

"We want our students to learn not only from textbooks and lectures, but from the hands-on opportunity of working with nationally and internationally recognized individuals," he says. "Undergraduate research is a way of applying what you learned, a way of seeing how science works: that it's hard work, that it's long hours, that nothing's certain, that grants have to be written, that reports have to be written on the research done."

And, he adds, it gives students the opportunity to experience "the excitement of being the first to see the information that no one else in the world has seen. This can set a student's mind aflame with thought."

Held annually at the university's McKimmon Center, the Undergraduate Research Symposium began nine years ago. The symposium requires students to present their projects during three-hour poster or oral presentations, or both. The entries are divided among four award categories: Biological Sciences, Engineering and Technology, Humanities and Social Sciences and Mathematical Sciences. A team of faculty and off-campus judges for each category selects the most outstanding contributions for special recognition.

This year's symposium drew 130 submissions, 58 of which were in Biological Sciences.

Because the symposium requires students to write a paper in scientific format and present it in the same poster session format that faculty follow at national and international meetings, Barthalmus calls it "a confidence builder."

"The value of the research symposium is that it allows a student to see why he takes math, chemistry, physics, all the biology courses, statistics, English, creative writing, public speaking," Barthalmus says. "All of it has to come together to make an effective scientist. It makes the reality of why they're taking courses come together, to produce the synergy. And many of these students will never be the same because of it."

Looking through doors and windows

In fact, symposium winner Jennifer Brady mentions that one of the rewards of participation in her research project is, "I will leave here with a couple of publications with my name on them. That's incredible!"

Jennifer Brady at the NIEHS A rising senior in biological sciences, Brady researched the effects of DNA-damaging agents on cell strains and cell lines expressing varying degrees of BRCA1, a protein linked to familial breast cancer. People carrying mutations in the gene, she explains, have a higher risk of developing breast cancer. The purpose of her experiment was to see if damage to the DNA of these persons, such as by exposure to radiation in a mammogram, would put them at even higher risk: "We wanted to see what the rate of cell death would be if they already had a mutation and were hit with DNA damage."

The results, she says, "allowed us to see how cells that don't have normal protein responded as compared to cells that expressed normal levels."

Brady's project mentor was Lois A. Annab of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, where Brady currently works as a research assistant.

Brady says, "When you actually see what research does in the work field, it's easier to apply it in the classroom. As a result of this research experience, I've seen my classroom performance improve, especially in the lab setting."

And while she's currently looking into a future in marine biology, Brady says that the experience in the ever-changing field of breast cancer research fascinated her. "I've only got one year left, so I want to look through all the doors and windows to find out what I'm passionate about."

Moving in new directions

That kind of decision was crystallized for another symposium winner, Nolan Yeung, by his hands-on research experience. A May 1999 graduate in biological engineering, Yeung parlayed his senior-year internship at Dr. Ron Sederoff's forest biotechnology lab into his symposium project and ultimately into a job with Novartis Agribusiness and Biotechnology Research Inc. in RTP.

Nolan Yeung, Ross Whetten and Alison Morse Working with Dr. Ross Whetten, associate professor, forest biotechnology research, and with graduate student Alison Morse "was where I learned to do hands-on genetics experiments like DNA and RNA isolation, and that's what Novartis was looking for," says Yeung.

Whetten served as mentor for Yeung's symposium project, in which they were trying to develop a method to detect protein-protein interactions and isolate the corresponding gene. "We tried to develop a general method that could be used to detect any interactions and then looked specifically at MAP kinase protein (a plant protein) to see what activates it and what it in turn activates," Yeung explains.

The importance of this work, he says, is that there is no literature on those targets in plants. "There's plenty on animal MAP kinase interaction but not on plants, and we wanted to be the first."

Significantly, this research was Yeung's first experience doing molecular biology or genetics experiments, because, he says, "I'm an engineer by trade."

Make that past tense.

Now, with Novartis, he's in the natural resistance group doing molecular biology research for crop protection. In addition to his biological engineering degree, Yeung received a minor in genetics "because I wanted to do both, get the best of both worlds. My research experience fueled the desire to work in the genetics field, so that is what I'm doing now."

The other 1999 symposium recognition winners >from the College were:

  • David Higgins, mentored by Dr. Bill Miller, department of biochemistry;
  • Hadley Cairns, mentored by Dr. Leigh A. Johnson, botany;
  • and Barrett Gift and Sara Fruchtman, mentored by Dr. Russell J. Borski, zoology.

Certificates and monetary prizes were awarded to the winners at a Sigma Xi dinner in their honor.

However, many more of the College's symposium participants count themselves as winners. Rising senior Jessica Hutchison says the experience helped her to secure a plum summer internship with the Savannah River Ecology Project in Aiken, S.C. "I had been trying for internships, and this summer, with this on my resume, I was able to get one," says the environmental soil science major.

A curricular change of pace

Other participants were looking for a curricular change of pace. Amy Polen is a rising senior majoring in microbiology on a career track toward medical school and neonatology, but her research project was the stuff of production agriculture: "Resistance of Five Cucumber Cultivars to Three Fungal Pathogens."

"I was looking for lab experience, learning sterile techniques and the basic techniques of the lab," she says. "But I also got to do a lot of field work at the Clinton research station in Sampson County, where we hand-planted a two-acre plot of land. I got to meet a lot of farmers, and it helped me to learn a lot about North Carolina."

Polen, a Park Scholar, says that the greatest reward for her came in "just learning how to present and talk about research and answer questions. People are interested in the practical applications. For me, it is a realistic type of research because it affects the citizens of the state. It helps farmers, affects profit and affects food production."

Meredith Mills For animal science major Meredith Mills, reaching the citizens of the state was central to her project, "Extension: Learning through Doing." As part of communications activities with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, she organized horse husbandry clinics offering 236 hours of training.

"These clinics deliver crucial information that people might not have had the opportunity to hear from these professionals at such low costs," Mills says. "It helps stimulate the horse industry and helps it grow. We've estimated, from surveys and other indicators, that $1 million has been saved through public participation in the clinics."

Public health benefits could ensue as a result of the research of Simon Agwalory, who analyzed a juvenile hormone and feeding in the German cockroach. Agwalory, a biology major, worked with his mentor, Dr. Coby Schal, and lab technician Bridget Deasy to figure out ways to make German cockroaches, the world's most prevalent pest, feed on the bait set to kill them. Continuation of the research is important, Agwalory says, "because the German cockroach is a No. 1 cause of asthma in inner cities and it carries many diseases. Control of it will help control diseases."

One-on-one with the pros

Barthalmus calls attention to another benefit of Agwalory's symposium experience — that the student had the opportunity to work with Dr. Schal, Blanton J. Whitmire Professor of Entomology and one of the world's authorities on insect pheromones. "What this shows is that we have internationally recognized faculty working directly in research with undergraduate students in these projects, sharing information," he says.

As a result of the experience, Agwalory plans to pursue graduate studies. "All I've been learning in class about scientific method and experiments didn't mean as much to me till now," he says.
"Now I know what it means to be a scientist."

Hands-on academics
On April 27 the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences sponsored its first annual Undergraduate Teaching Symposium, featuring the efforts of College undergraduates in scholarly teaching projects.

Previously, students who pursued an Honors degree from the College and who chose to complete the teaching option of ALS 498 and 499 participated in the Undergraduate Research Symposium. Beginning this year, however, these students were invited to present their efforts in a separate symposium devoted to teaching.

"Our College separated the teaching symposium from the research symposium because honors teachers were competing with honors researchers, and we didn't think this was an appropriate setting for them," said Dr. George Barthalmus, associate dean and director of academic programs for the College.

Students participating in the teaching symposium can make a significant contribution to the development of course work while doing scholarly and groundbreaking work with a faculty member.

"They put courses and tutorial services online, rewrite laboratory plans and restructure courses that they themselves have taken, so they know what needs to be fixed," Barthalmus explained. "What better way for students to consolidate and organize their knowledge of a subject than to have to frame it into a lesson for someone else?"

By offering teaching opportunities for undergraduates, the College allows students to discover how best to learn the subject matter themselves, he said. "It's hands-on academics with peers."

There were 19 participants in this year's event. Projects offered revisions of course packs and laboratory exercises, tutorial programs to enhance courses, Web pages designed to supplement courses, and measures of the effectiveness of quiz methods. Titles included "Web-based Quiz Development for Nutrition of Domestic Animals," "Using Technology as a Supplement to Introductory Biology Laboratory Courses" and "Teaching Genetics for the Future."

Chancellor Marye Anne Fox commended efforts exhibited in the teaching symposium.

"In every project, the students have gained the wisdom from their experience and the satisfaction of completing meaningful work," she said. "The College is the beneficiary of new and updated class Web pages, innovative or improved laboratory teaching aids and new strategies for enhancing conceptual understanding."