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Winter 2002


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Hands On
Research brings new dimension to undergrads’ education

Zima Zahr, UVM senior in biology, is a fast talker, seriously fast. But just as you fear that you’ll lose the thread of her conversation in a blur of words like “luciferase, hypoxia, and induction” and plentiful acronyms — “VEGF, HIF, GAPDH” — she pauses, looks you in the eye to emphasize her dedication to the work, and says: “These are my cells, my project, my thing.”

That thing is research, a real role in scientific investigation pursued under the mentorship of Karen Lounsbury, assistant professor of pharmacology in the College of Medicine. While Zahr is clearly a bright and focused student, she isn’t unique. Across the entire university, students are delving into research and scholarship, going far beyond completing a lab assignment or writing a term paper.

It’s late in the afternoon on Halloween, and the first snowflakes of the season are blowing past the windows of UVM’s new Health Sciences Research Facility. Rima Zahr is “at the bench” in the lab that she calls her second home. If it’s an average weekday, in addition to her course load, she’ll be here for three or four hours. An average Saturday or Sunday, longer.

Wearing a pair of bright purple lab gloves, Zahr works with her cells. Specifically, they’re vascular smooth muscle cells from rats which she extracts and places in a centrifuge to conduct a luciferase assay, an experiment that could yield clues on the ways of arterial growth.

Zahr’s project is one part of the collective work of this lab, which includes post-doctoral fellow Rebecca Guy, graduate students Pat Curtis and Renee Pulver, and lab technician Terry Wellman. All are focused upon their individual aspects of the research, but well aware of the part it plays in the whole. The guiding force for all that happens here is Lounsbury’s research into vascular cell growth, work that could yield applications in the diagnosis or treatment of diseases such as stroke and ovarian cancer.

Working collaboratively is among the lessons a šedgling researcher must absorb. When Lounsbury talks with Zahr about the student’s latest work, it is with a rapport balancing scientist to scientist and teacher to pupil. Discussing lab results that suggest a conclusion, Lounsbury first asks Zahr what she thinks.

Zahr looks over the bar graphs that illustrate her latest assays, considers for a moment, and replies, “I’m not convinced.”

“Good. I know it looks tempting, but I think you need to do it one more time,” Lounsbury says.

Zahr nods. Back to the bench.

Terry Wellman has worked as lab technician for Lounsbury since the assistant professor came to UVM four years ago. “Karen’s a born teacher,” Wellman says. “She loves to uncover stuff for people who’ve never seen it, whether that’s graduate students, undergrads, or high school kids. She loves to get people to the point where they love this work as much as she does. That’s at the heart of why she’s in science.”

Mom, can I have a grant?

If Zahr is on a similar path to a career in the life sciences, credit for helping her along the way is due to the Hughes Endeavor for the Life Sciences Excellence (HELiX), which offers funding and administrative support essential to creating research opportunities for undergraduates.

The bulletin board outside of the HELiX office on the second floor of the Marsh Life Science Building features a list of approximately 120 UVM research scientists who have expressed not just willingness, but genuine interest in working with undergraduates. The wide ranging areas of study include forest pathology, biomechanics, tree fruit research, caffeine and nicotine use, cheese chemistry, medical ethics, breast cancer, food safety, air pollution, and classical harmonic analysis, to name a few. For the inquiring undergraduate mind, there is something for everyone.

Tacked above the list is a yellowed “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip. Boy and tiger make plans to invent a robot. Hobbes asks, “Where do we start?” Calvin answers, “We ask mom for a research grant.”

At UVM, mom’s name is often HELiX. And that may be appropriate, because it is an almost parental concern for nurturing young scientists that motivates the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s support of the program, says UVM HELiX Director Judith Van Houten, also chair of the university’s Biology Department.

“At the Hughes Medical Institute, it is well accepted among the scientists that the most important life-shaping professional experience you can have is the chance to form a close relationship with a faculty member and the opportunity to do research,” Van Houten says.

It’s been twelve years since HELiX first began promoting research opportunities for UVM undergraduates. A limited number of institutions — among them MIT, University of Chicago, and Harvard — are invited to apply for the highly selective grant program, but UVM is a particularly good fit.

Van Houten credits the academic culture and dedication to undergraduate education on the part of UVM faculty for that. “UVM is a great place for this because you can have the intimacy of a liberal arts college with courses that are small format and highly interactive. At the same time you can take the best aspects of a full-blown research university,” Van Houten says.

“For instance, I can say to an interested student, ‘Are you interested in environmental engineering? Would you be interested in working with the engineer portrayed in the movie A Civil Action?’ [Professor George Pinder]. That’s just a great aspect of UVM. At Colby or Middlebury, you’re just not going to have the opportunity to work with an engineer or a college of medicine.”

Making it happen

One of the greatest gifts a teacher can have is the ability to recall what it’s like to be a student. Clearly, Karen Lounsbury remembers her undergraduate days at Penn State, casting about for what she wanted to be when she grew up. “I took every standardized test there was,” she laughs. “Biz school, law school, medical school.” Ultimately, it was senior year research in a microbiology lab that set her on the career path she’s pursued. “I really liked the hands-on aspect,” she says. “The nitty-gritty cooking aspect.”

Now a mentor herself, Lounsbury takes pleasure in Zahr’s growth over the three years that she’s worked in her lab. “Rima’s gone from saying, ‘Do I really have to label all these test tubes?’ to labeling sixty test tubes without hesitation and getting on with the work.”

But Zahr has picked up more than persistence and a facile hand with a pipette, she’s also grown to be comfortable with a grant application, poster presentation, and writing a manuscript. Faculty who work with undergraduates in research stress that these lessons are among the most valuable learned in the lab.

A roster of HELiX/UVM alumni from the past ten years is evidence that the lessons are being learned well. Significant numbers of PhDs and MDs are on the list, and graduates are working for the likes of Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Harvard University, and Lockheed Martin Space Operations.

Soon, Rima Zahr will join that impressive alumni group. She plans a year doing laboratory work for a biotech company near her family in the Boston area. From there, she’ll weigh taking her father’s career direction (he holds a PhD in organic chemistry). Or, as her dad would prefer, she may restore a Zahr family tradition by following her grandfather to medical school. An MD/PhD program looks like a good bet at this point.

Whichever path she chooses, Zahr will carry a distinct advantage thanks to her hours in the lab. Lounsbury suggests that undergraduates who tackle research also take on a greater beast, one that can thwart any exploration, scientific or otherwise. That is the fear of the unknown. Lounsbury puts it simply: “Rima has learned the most important thing — knowing that you can get in there and make it happen.”

Student research
Not just for life scientists anymore

Building upon the HELiX program’s success creating research opportunities for life sciences students, UVM introduced university-funded support to extend opportunities to students in other fields. Boasting a memorable acronym of its own, Stimulate Undergraduate and Graduate Research with Faculty Mentoring (SUGR/FaMe) offers scholarship grants as well as research funding to undergrads and first-year graduate students. Read on for a glimpse of the sweetness and light shed by the program, which funded some forty projects in the past year.

Keeping our feet
To a physical therapist, it’s “postural perturbation;” to you and me, it’s the slip on a patch of ice or the jostle of a moving subway. Erin Loskutoff ’01 studied how our central nervous systems manage to keep us on our feet (OK, some of the time) in such situations. The research project challenged her like no other undergraduate experience, says Loskutoff, who conducted her work under the guidance of Physical Therapy Professor Sharon Henry. “Keeping track of my data, monitoring where I was in the analysis process, budgeting time for research and writing, and reading related journal articles…there was never a dull moment,” Loskutoff says.

Nervous in the crease
When physical education major Amanda Heath ’01 considered options for a research project, her thoughts turned to her brother’s experience with the pressure of being a soccer goalie. Witnessing his trials and tribulations inspired Heath to study the competitive anxiety level of high school male hockey players. Specifically, she wanted to determine if the mental/emotional toll was rougher on goalies than their teammates. Though the difference wasn’t dramatic, Heath found slightly higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of confidence for the ’tenders. She says a different coaching approach might be in order for these players, or, in serious cases, a visit to the sports psychologist.

American elms remembered
John Thomas G’02 was a third grader in Ohio when his class watched a towering old elm being cut down. His teacher turned it into a lesson, telling the kids about all the history the tree had witnessed. The moment stayed with Thomas. Years later, as a first-year graduate student at UVM, he would go deep into that personal memory and search archives from Indiana to California to tell the history of this beloved, doomed species. Three hundred hard-won pages later, Thomas had not only a research report, but a manuscript that he continues to hone in hopes of publication. “It is one thing to get a good grade on a paper,” he says. “It is another matter to get a proposal accepted and have research funded. It is validation of your creativity and original thinking.”

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