Uncovering Solutions

Published Oct. 16, 2009

When you turned 16 did you suddenly know how to drive? Of course not. It takes time, practice, and experience; but you have to take the wheel to learn. In the College of Science at RIT, faculty believe the same goes for learning through research.

Early Research Opportunities

Undergraduate students have jumped into the driver’s seat and are conducting research assignments that students at most universities would not have the opportunity to participate in until graduate school. This hands-on experience at all undergraduate levels is consistent with RIT’s history as an experiential learning institution, exemplified through its world-renowned cooperative education program. Undergraduate research is now further enhancing the university’s efforts through the development of basic research programs in a host of fields.

Even before their first freshman class, students have the opportunity to work side by side with experienced researchers to explore their major and learn through the application of science. During the summer, RIT offers a four-week Summer Research Scholars Program to select incoming freshmen. The program provides top-tier students with the opportunity to get a jump start on their college degree and receive hands-on experience working in a lab. Students who participate complete two classes and work in the lab up to 30 hours per week.

The Summer Research Scholars Program started at the College of Science as a pilot program in 2006, under the leadership of Catherine Mahrt-Washington, assistant dean honors advocate and program director. Since then, the program has expanded to include the College of Applied Science and Technology, the College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Business, and will be welcoming the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences for 2009.

The university has been able to leverage the resources it already has in place to create a premier program for incoming students. “Everyone on campus has been extremely supportive, especially the faculty, from providing lab space to volunteering time with students. I am truly pleased with the faculty we have here and their willingness to participate,” says Mahrt-Washington.

Joshua Thomson, a junior biochemistry student, says, “the summer research program was the single most important thing that started my research and placed me with my mentor Dr. Suzanne O’Handley. It wasn’t until I started to do the research that I realized this is what I wanted to do. Being able to see how science is applied in the lab has also helped me with my course work.”

Investigating Potential Novel Antibiotic Targets

Since the summer before his freshman year, Thomson has been working alongside Dr. O’Handley, conducting research that entails the characterization of potential novel antibiotic targets from M. tuberculosis. They have been investigating enzymes Orf135 from E. coli and Rv1160 from M. tuberculosis. To establish Rv1160’s role in the cell, they performed complementation studies in the Orf135 knockout mutant with Rv1160. “If we can cure the Orf135 knockout mutant with Rv1160, then we can ascertain true functional homology for these enzymes,” says Thomson. Proving the significance of Orf135 and Rv1160 will help establish the potential of these enzymes as novel antibiotic targets in pathogenic E. coli and M. tuberculosis.

O’Handley stresses the importance of basic research. “Until the bacterial genome projects were completed, scientists didn’t realize how little we knew. It is basic research like this that may help us find new cures.”

Thomson has presented their results at several national meetings, including those of the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the American Chemical Society, and the American Society for Microbiology.

“This opportunity has given me not only experience in presenting, but exposure to the other work that is going on—it gives me a renewed excitement for my research.”

RIT is transforming into a university that has innovation as its main focus. For undergraduates that means infusing creativity and innovation into undergraduate programs through research. Dr. Lynn Wild, assistant provost for faculty success, adds, “Every student should have the chance to learn by doing. We are a university that is grounded in theory and the application of theory. We use research to inform our practice, and to me that’s beautiful.”

Examining VSV

Nathan Haseley, junior bioinformatics student, has been conducting research with Dr. Maureen Ferran since his freshman year after taking Ferran’s introduction to biology lab. When deciding which school to attend, Haseley realized the opportunity to be more involved at RIT. Haseley says, “At RIT, they let us work with really fun tools, really early on, and you won’t find that everywhere.”

Through funding by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Haseley and Ferran have been using Vesicular Stomatitis Virus (VSV) as a model system to determine how viruses bypass important antiviral defense systems. The research team uses comparative sequence analysis and many molecular biology techniques to study the mechanisms used by VSV to evade the antiviral interferon system and they hope to identify the viral proteins responsible. To date, they have uncovered sequence differences between viral strains and believe that by blocking activation of a cellular protein called NF-kB, the virus is able to prevent production of interferon, giving the virus an advantage over the cell.

Haseley has presented his work at several conferences across the state, starting with the Wednesday Research Seminar, hosted by the College of Science each Wednesday throughout the year. “The Wednesday Research Seminar provides students with an hour of opportunity,” says Catherine Mahrt-Washington, coordinator of the event. “It’s an hour to practice your presentation skills, influence your peers, and collaborate with faculty.” Each Wednesday, 60-90 students gather to hear their peers present their research and just maybe discover their own passion.

Student-designed Experiment

Jillian Lund, senior biotechnology student, began her research career after being inspired by a lecture given by Dr. Harvey Pough in her introduction to biology class freshman year. The spring quarter, Jillian enrolled in Pough’s reading course, where she had the opportunity to design an experiment with classmate Kevin Posman.

The pair explored the possible correlation between antibiotic use in agriculture and reservoirs of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the environment, which could pose a health risk to humans and animals.

An increase in the incidence of antibioticresistant enteric bacteria has been observed in wild vertebrate species that have never had direct contact with humans. Lund and Posman believe that in the United States, livestock farms may be contributing to this problem through their use of antibiotics to promote growth and prevent infection.

To test their hypothesis, they chose Lithobates clamitans, the wild green frog, as their indicator organism. They compared the antibiotic resistance of the enteric bacteria of frogs from three locations: a location expected to be protected from livestock waste, Mendon Ponds Park; an intermediate location that may have some exposure, the RIT campus; and an exposed location, a dairy farm in Clifton Springs, N.Y.

As predicted, their research found elevated levels of tetracycline and erythromycin resistance found in the isolates from the dairy farm. Exposure to these antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria is a health risk for humans and animals.

Lund has continued her research throughout her undergraduate career, working full-time in the lab during the summer semester and about 8-10 hours a week during the rest of the year. “My experience in the lab has given me confidence and I am able to proceed faster,” says Lund. “With just a few hours a week in a lab you can accomplish something significant.”

“Research is an important part of development as a scientist. Undergraduate students who do research are as well prepared as most students who have been in graduate school for a year; it gives students a real head start,” adds Pough.

Sarah Denial, a 2007 biochemistry graduate who worked in Dr. Suzanne O’Handley’s biochemistry lab throughout her undergraduate career, explains, “You don’t learn how to be a good scientist by reading out of a book. Experience in a lab is the most important thing. My undergraduate research experience allowed me to intern at AMGEN the summer before my senior year and has set me apart from my peers at Cornell, where I am pursuing my Ph.D.”

Value of a Black Hole

Nicholas Battista, senior applied mathematics and physics major, has been conducting research in RIT’s School of Mathematical Sciences and the Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation. One of his projects consisted of solving non-linear, elliptic partial differential equations that describe the initial space-time surrounding black holes, which requires the knowledge of partial differential equations, conformal mappings, spectral numerical methods, asymptotic methods, as well as a foundation of general relativity.

Battista presented his findings at the 2008 Undergraduate Research Symposium, which resulted in an invitation to present at the Joint Mathematics Meeting, the largest annual mathematics conference between the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America. “Presenting my research at the Undergraduate Research Symposium was one of the most fulfilling moments of my undergraduate study thus far,” says Battista.

The Undergraduate Research Symposium started in 1998 with a mere four attendees. It has since grown to over 200 attendees this year; next year the event will span two days and other universities will be invited to participate. Each year, the event is held at the conclusion of the summer quarter. All students conducting undergraduate research are encouraged to participate, including incoming freshmen participating in the Summer Research Scholars Program. Students may display a poster or give an oral presentation of their research and awards are given to the best poster and presentation.

Dr. KSV Santhanam, director of the symposium, says, “The symposium provides students with good training in how to approach scientific problems and it builds their confidence. They boldly face a problem and work to find an answer. Our students are better trained to face an audience and scientific problems.”

National Recognition

Undergraduate research is an integral role in the learning experience at RIT. Last spring, the four students featured—Nicholas Battista, Nathan Haseley, Jillian Lund, and Joshua Thomson—each received the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious award for undergraduate students interested in pursuing careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering. Only four students from any given university can apply, and all four students that applied from RIT were awarded the scholarship in 2008. This is a feat many historical research universities are not able to achieve and a true testament to the quality of education and research that is being done at RIT.

“At RIT, we get undergraduates involved. Students are not only learning, they are getting experience so when they leave, they can get jobs and get into some of the best graduate programs in the country. These students are wildly employable,” says Dr. Lynn Wild.