EMU students get hands-on lab experience

Story by Jim Bishop

Two undergraduate students are getting intensive, practical experience in molecular biological research this summer at Eastern Mennonite University with the help of a National Science Foundation grant.

Margaret Parker, a rising senior biology/pre-med major at EMU, and Obi Onuoha, a rising junior biology/allied health major from Virginia Union University in Richmond, are spending 10 weeks in laboratories in EMU’s Suter Science Center studying “electrophysical investigations in glutamate receptor function.”

Ms. Parker, of Wichita, Kan., and Onuoha, from Salisbury, Md., and originally from Nigeria, are among 12 students taking part in an NSF collaborative project at three area schools, May 21 through July 26, 2007.

The others are working in laboratories at neighboring Bridgewater College and at James Madison University, addressing questions in genetics, cells, tissues, organisms and ecosystems.

The NSF project is designed to provide in-depth basic scientific research opportunities for students who are not enrolled in major research universities. It is a competitive program, with recipients receiving a stipend, supply allowance, travel funds, lodging and meals.

Parker and Onuoha explained that glutamate receptors “are important in converting chemicals to electrical signals in the brain that are critical to the learning and memory process.”

Overexcitation of these receptors can cause cell death, such as secondary damage following a stroke.

In the EMU lab, the students are looking at one particular way of controlling these receptors by reducing and oxidizing agents in the environment outside of the cell. The students have been converting DNA molecules to RNA that will be injected into frog eggs. They will then record tiny electrical currents from the eggs and analyze their findings.

“I’m learning a lot this summer that I can apply to my undergraduate program and eventually in my graduate work,” said Onuoha. “I’m trying not to take any of this for granted.”

“The smaller setting with regular faculty interaction” is helping me better understand the implications of what we’re doing and why,” said Parker. “I’m especially pleased that EMU is promoting involvement in the larger scientific community through this project – it’s good for the students and for the [participating] schools.”

Ultimately, their findings may contribute to the creation of a drug that can help improve memory retention, for example. Greta Ann Herin, assistant professor of biology, is EMU’s faculty participant, relating closely to the students in their daily work.

“This is so different from a typical lab course,” Dr. Herin said. “The students are required to synthesize learnings from a variety of courses – physics, math, biology – utilizing everything at once.”

In addition to close faculty-student interaction, there are frequent opportunities for seminars and guest speakers in cohort settings and social programs – including a canoe trip – to help students develop camaraderie with peers and mentors and more deeply appreciate the broad use of molecular biology tools.

The program will conclude with a poster session July 26 when all 12 students present their research findings and answer questions.

Parker will work this fall with Herin, either continuing her present research or another project. She plans to take a year off after graduation from EMU and then will apply to medical school. She eventually wants to be a missionary doctor.

Onuoha wants to do graduate work in microbiology or become a family physician. He will present his findings at a national scientific meeting in Texas this fall.

Parker also hopes to present at a meeting at some point.

“This experience is so valuable in that students are learning to problem-solve; it is their project that they own, and in the process they actually contribute to an existing body of knowledge,” Herin said.

More information on the summer research program is available at www.jmu.edu/biology/reu/reu.shtml.

Jim Bishop is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press.

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