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Students participate in summer research projects thanks to Merck/AAAS grant

Merck_1.jpgBOONE—Eight undergraduate students and eight professors at Appalachian State University are spending 10 weeks this summer exploring science.

What makes their activities unusual is the pairing of students and professors in four cross-disciplinary teams, with each team comprised of a student and professor from biology, and a student and professor from chemistry. The students are receiving a $3,000 stipend for their work.

The summer project is funded by a three-year $60,000 Merck/AAAS Undergraduate Science Research Program grant provided by the Merck Institute for Science Education and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Appalachian is one of 11 universities in the United States to receive the competitive Merck/AAAS funding.

At Appalachian, the teams are exploring how molecules interact with organisms, said grant co-author and assistant chemistry professor Nicole Bennett.

“Merck established this grant because the company is interested in employees who have research experience in chemistry and biology. But they noticed that it’s not necessarily common for university chemistry and biology departments to interact with each other,” Bennett said. “They want to promote this type of research interface because they believe it will benefit the universities and the pharmaceutical industry.”

In addition to participating in research projects, students are learning about lab safety and responsible conduct in research, attending weekly meetings and presenting updates on their work every two weeks. They also will be encouraged to present their research at regional or national conferences.

“This experience will give the students confidence in approaching the research and in discussing, defending and presenting the research in a professional setting,” Bennett said.

The research projects were developed by the participating faculty members. Biology professor Shea Tuberty and chemistry professor Carol Babyak and students Erin Singer and Leigh Ann Gibbons are measuring pharmaceutical estrogens in wastewater and demonstrating that even ultra-low environmental concentrations can feminize local male fish populations by inducing their livers to produce egg yolk and testes to develop eggs.

Merck_2.jpgBennett is co-directing a project with biologist Mark Venable to prepare and study a variety of organic compounds and determine their toxicity. These compounds might be used as fuel cell additives. The results will be sent to the fuel cell company Farasis Energy Inc.

Bennett and Venable are working with students Glenn Harris and Heather Martin.

“We want to know how toxic the compounds are before they are considered for use as fuel cell additives,” Bennett said.

Merck_3.jpgBiologist Howie Neufeld and chemistry professor John Tomlinson and students Andrew Doub and Serena Heinz are looking at the sticky substance that forms as part of new growth on rhododendron.

“We are always looking for (plant) adaptations,” Neufeld said. “If you see a structure on a plant performing some function, such as the sticky glands on rhododendrons, there had to be selective pressure to produce that structure. That suggests there was some benefit to the plant, such as protection from insects.”

Merck_4.jpgThe group also is trying to determine the chemical structure of the compounds in galax that causes the plant’s pungent odor, which might be a defense mechanism that kills fungus or bacteria.

The fourth team, led by chemistry professor Claudia Cartaya-Marin and biology professor Ece Karatan, are studying Vibrio cholerae, the causative agent of the acute diarrheal illness cholera and how a small molecule in the bacterium helps it adapt to its changing environment.

Cartaya and Karatan are working with students Lauren Alex James and Jesse Marino to find proteins associated with the bacterium that will help them tease apart the complex mechanisms that enable this bacterium to adapt to its environment.

The Merck project also has received funding for equipment and supplies from Appalachian’s Cratis D. Williams Graduate School’s Office of Research Programs, and additional funding for the student stipends from the College of Arts and Sciences.

Bennett hopes the project will spur undergraduates to pursue advanced degrees in the sciences.

“I wanted to be a professor when I was a student, but I didn’t really know what that meant,” she said. “Getting research experience as an undergraduate really helped prepare me for graduate school, where taking courses is a small amount of what you do. A lot of what you do is research. I am really proud of these students and of how hard they are working. They are extremely conscientious and understand this is something special that they are a part of.”

Other institutions receiving Merck/AAAS Undergraduate Science Research Program funding were:

Drew University, Madison, N.J.

Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Ore.

Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles

Macalester College, St. Paul, Minn.

Simmons College, Boston

State University of New York College, Brockport

State University of New York, Oswego

Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pa.

Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas

University of Illinois, Springfield


First picture caption: Eight undergraduate students at Appalachian State University are paired with eight professors to explore the intersection of biology and chemistry. The 10-week program is funded by a three-year $60,000 Merck/AAAS Undergraduate Science Research Program grant provided by the Merck Institute for Science Education and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Students participating in the project are seated from left, Jesse Merino, Leigh Ann Gibbons and Erin Einger. Also participating are Andrew Doub, standing left, Lauren James, Serena Heinz and Jonathan Glenn Harris. Not pictured is Heather Martin.

Second picture caption: Glenn Harris prepares an organic compound as part of a research project to determine the toxicity of potential fuel cell additives.

Third picture caption: Appalachian State University undergraduates Serena Heinz, left, and Andrew Doub work with Professor Howie Neufeld to learn about the sticky substance that forms as part of new growth on rhododendron. The substance may form to protect new growth from insects.

Fourth picture caption: A magnification of a rhododendron plant shows the sticky covering that occurs for a short time on new growth.