For many biochem majors, research is the capstone of their undergraduate experience. That's because the research laboratory is the ultimate classroom. In contrast to laboratories associated with classes, which are intended to illustrate specific topics, research is open-ended. It's not following along with someone else's experiments; it's up to you to figure out how to solve problems. That requires the knowledge that you gain through classes and literature, but it also requires scientific skill and intuition. But you also have fun, working as part of a research team composed of graduate students, senior researchers, and faculty members.

Undergraduates can also apply for paid research fellowships during the summer. A reasonably complete list of undergraduate research opportunities, including summer fellowships, can be found here. Another source of summer support is the APLE Program, funded through the College of Arts and Sciences. APLE also helps fund research projects during the academic year.

Ross Buchman ’22: Tracking Down Treatments for Fast-Growing Cancers

Ross Buchman

In 2019, Ross Buchman ’22 nailed down a summer job just five miles from his home in St. Louis. The rising sophomore is working as a lab assistant under the tutelage of Dr. Albert Kim at Washington University, helping to discover treatments for glioblastoma, a deadly brain cancer. A biochemistry major, Buchman attended high school in St. Louis and played lacrosse—he was an Academic All-American during his senior season (he now plays defenseman for the UVM lacrosse team). “During winter break I asked Dr. Kim about a position in his lab and he said he’d be happy to hire me, me but he couldn’t pay me,” said Buchman. That’s when UVM’s Office of Fellowships, Opportunities and Undergraduate Research (FOUR) office stepped in. FOUR helps UVM undergraduates identify and fund undergraduate research opportunities. Thanks to a summer fellowship, Buchman covered his expenses while picking up valuable experience in a cutting-edge medical lab. His summer project focuses on glioblastoma, a deadly brain cancer with an average 15-month survival rate following diagnosis. Only 30% of patients live beyond two years.

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“Common treatment for this type of cancer is surgery, removing as much of tumor as possible,” explains Buchman. “But it’s a difficult and delicate procedure.” After surgery, doctors typically rely on a grueling regime of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Buchman says the cancer is also very complex on a molecular level. “The glioblastoma tumor is heterogenous which means cells are very different from each other. So there are actually different parts of tumor with different genetic makeups.” Kim’s lab is researching various pathways to short-circuit the process glioblastoma cells use to replenish themselves. “Two years ago the lab tested the efficacy of a first generation MLL (mixed lineage leukemia) inhibitor. What I’m researching is the next generation of the drug that is expected be more potent and could be taken orally,” Buchman said.

Buchman has been interested in cancer research ever since he can remember. He’s a cancer survivor himself—at the age of five he had a kidney removed as a result of a Wilms tumor. Today he’s cancer free and is dedicating himself to finding solutions to an especially stubborn form of the disease. “I definitely have my sights on becoming a doctor,” he says. “Like Dr. Kim, I’d like to practice medicine but also stay active in research.”

 

Ona Ambrozaite ’21: Finding Purpose in Medical Research

Ona Ambrozaite ’21 never visited campus before arriving for her first semester at UVM. Her natural friendliness and strong sense of personal and academic adventure have helped her make the adjustment to college life, and so far, UVM is all that she imagined it would be. Ambrozaite grew up in Lithuania and moved to Chicago when she was 15. “As a kid I liked to study plants and animals, their cells, and how such tiny ‘workers’ arrange themselves to form various organisms—the ‘macroscopic’ scale of life. When I was introduced to atoms, molecules, and chemical reactions, I realized I also liked the ‘microscopic.’ So biochemistry seemed to me like a perfect combination of those interests.” A high school guidance counselor shared some materials about UVM, including a poster of Mount Mansfield, and Ambrozaite’s curiosity was piqued.

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After taking AP science classes in high school, she applied early to UVM and was admitted in the fall of 2016—and that concluded her college search. “So many of my friends were stressing out about what college they were going to commit to, but I knew UVM was it.” Her first visit to campus came during 2018 orientation, and she plunged into her coursework which included a special section of organic chemistry semester for first-year students. “It was challenging, but I find beauty in complexity—the whole process of problem solving. Of course, without professor Brewer, who took up such a challenge of teaching the intricacies of organic chemistry to brand new college students, it would not have been possible.” She’s interested in staying in Burlington during the summer to pursue research, either at the university or in different national programs offered to biochemistry majors.

Ambrozaite is still in the early stages of her undergraduate career, but a future in medicine or research is beginning to come into focus. “Recently I’ve become interested in cancer research. When I started organic chemistry, we learned how to synthesize new molecular compounds, and I thought that might be truly promising to create therapeutic agents against one of the most devastating diseases we see today.”

 

Natavan Dudkina ‘18: Learning the Language of Science

Nata

A native of Baku, Azerbaijan, Natavan Dudkina has discovered a talent for language—both linguistic and scientific. She attended school in Baku and took some English courses in middle school, but didn’t get a chance to practice the language until she was accepted into a cultural exchange program sponsored by the American embassy in Azerbaijan. “We spent two weeks in Washington, DC, and two weeks in Seattle. Sometimes it was a struggle to remember the right words to describe simple things, but with practice I got better.”When she announced her interest in attending college in the U.S., her parents were apprehensive. Dudkina compromised: she agreed to prepare for exams in her home country while exploring college options in the U.S. She learned about UVM at an education fair, and was intrigued by the highly regarded medical school located on campus and the small-city atmosphere of Burlington. She also found out about the Global Gateway Program, which helps international students at UVM hone their English language skills while adjusting to life in the U.S.

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“The program helped me get acclimated to higher education in America. In my home country there was very little tolerance for questioning in class—it could be interpreted as challenging the authority of the teacher. Here, I learned that asking questions is encouraged.” Fascinated by her biology and chemistry coursework, she settled on biochemistry as a major. “I love applying the language of chemistry to biological systems—the disciplines really build on each other,” she said.

She found an intellectual home in the lab of chemistry professor Severin Schnebelli, which specializes in finding efficient ways to build organic molecules. Dudkina described it as a life changing experience. “I really feel like part of the team. They include me in conversations and treat me as a person who can contribute ideas and suggestions. They always ask me ‘Nata, what do you think?’” After working for two years in the Schnebelli lab, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. program in chemistry. With the help of Schnebelli and Ph.D. student Mona Sharafi, Dudkina has been accepted to a graduate program in chemistry at Yale.

 

Stella Varnum ‘21: Discovering Challenges and Rewards

Stella Varnum ‘21, a native of Watertown, Mass., was looking for colleges with strong research programs and which offered a biochemistry major, so the University of Vermont popped up on her radar. She was sold on UVM when she learned during a student visit day that the university offered “Organic Chemistry for Majors,” a course specially designed for first-year students.

“I took AP science classes in high school, so I felt like my background in chemistry was pretty solid. I didn’t want to retake a lot of familiar material in a large lecture setting, but this class was capped at 45 students so it felt like the right fit.” As her college career progresses, she’s secure in the knowledge that her major is challenging and rewarding, and is looking forward to other opportunities. As a member of UVM’s Honors College, she is expanding her intellectual horizons, as many Honors’ College courses can also go towards distribution requirement for her major. She’s exploring funded internships and study-abroad opportunities offered through the College of Arts and Sciences, and works as an undergraduate researcher in Dimitry Krementsov's lab in the Department of Medical, Laboratory, and Radiation Sciences, which is in the College of Nursing. In her free time, she enjoys the occasional ski day in the nearby Green Mountains. “It’s really awesome to head out on a Saturday morning and spend some time on the slopes.”

 

Student Photo

Research in Biochemistry

Students often work with professors during the school year, receiving credit for research in a variety of departments. Some examples of recent research projects:

Khadar Abdi ‘17: Honors Thesis “Effects of Conformational Change on the Angiogenic Activity of Thereonyl_tRNA Synthetase.” Advisor: Professor Karen Lounsbury.

Gabriel Cohn ’18: Researching pediatric leukemia in the UVM Larner College of Medicine, under the supervision of Dr. Jessica Heath. Recent research includes the interaction of two transcription factors, IKAROS and RUNX1, in acute myeloid leukemia. 

Michelle Falcone ’18: Honors Thesis research on the implications of long non-coding RNA in the differentiation of stem cells to osteoblasts in the Stein/Lian Lab in the Larner College of Medicine. Dr. Coralee Tye (PI).

Miraima Haq ’17: Honors Thesis “Evaluation of the Development of Crystals on Smear Ripened Cheese through Polarized Light Microscopy and X-ray Diffraction.” Advisor: Professor Paul Kindstedt.

Patrick James Wiencek ’17: Honors Thesis “Exploring the Diversity and Dispersal Mechanisms of Caribbean Cyclosa.” Advisor: Professor Professor Angi Agnarsson.

Adam Weinheimer ’18: Honors Thesis research focused on the role master regulator and transcription factor Runx1, plays in the human breast cancer stem cell population, under Professor Janet Stein (PI) and Professor Matthew Liptak (thesis advisor).