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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.

Exploring the Science and Humanity of Medicine

Kassondra Little

Kassondra Little’s interest in a medical career was kindled as a child growing up in New York’s Hudson Valley when she was diagnosed with a blood disorder. Her physician, a specialist in hematology and oncology, became an early role model for how much a knowledgeable and empathetic physician can mean to a young patient with a serious medical condition. Little came to UVM on a pre-med track, but didn’t want to be “just another STEM kid.” She embraced her humanities and social sciences courses, eventually adopting a minor in health and society. “The Health in America TAP class with Dale Jaffe was one of the most exciting courses I’ve taken at UVM,” she said. “It confirmed for me that I wanted to get a masters of public health as well as a medical degree.” Little also found a stimulating intellectual home in the lab of Severin Schneebeli, her organic chemistry instructor and assistant chemistry professor at UVM.

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She finds the work rewarding because of the problem-solving challenges and the open, give-and-take atmosphere in the Schneebeli lab. “I might spend an hour talking with Severin about a road block I’m encountering in my research,” she says. “You’re having this really involved discussion with someone with the highest degree in the field, and you’re talking as equals.” Schneebeli is supervising Little’s senior honor’s thesis in a specific area of biomimetics (synthetic methods that mimic biochemical processes). Little is particularly excited about applying this work to medicine. She says being able to make shape-defined polymers, or design synthetic molecules based on a designated function, opens a gate to efficient, stable and cost-effective methods for materials that could be used for intervention or point-of-care testing with a high degree of specificity. “It’s exciting to think about developing methods that could be really helpful in noninfectious diseases that I’ll treat in patients later on, especially ones that could be more accessible for disadvantaged populations via cheaper cost. This is where I am really able to pull the biology from my biochemistry degree and get to look at my research through biological and social lenses.” Above all, she knows her background is Schneebeli’s lab is equipping her with problem-solving skills vital in any field. “Medicine will change so much, even before I become a doctor. I’m picking up a lot of valuable knowledge about how to think about problems in new ways, and being confident in my problem-solving skill set.”

 

Crafting an education through research

Linnea Saunders

Linnea Saunders ’21 grew up Warner, N.H., and attended Proctor Academy, a small independent school nearby. When her college search began she gravitated to smaller schools with strong science programs, but her visit to UVM helped convince her that she could thrive in a research university setting. “It helped that I could take organic chemistry during my first year,” she says. “The class was small, and I knew that would make a huge difference in mastering the course and being able to build a relationship with the professor.” Saunders found opportunities to do research early in her academic career. She’s working in Associate Professor Robert Hondal’s lab, trying to unravel the mystery of why a small number of human proteins contain the element selenium, rather than another more common group 16 element sulphur.

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She explains that it’s difficult to incorporate selenium into proteins. “If the body goes through so much work to adopt selenium instead of sulphur, there must be a reason for it.” Saunders’ project is helping researchers at UVM and other labs understand the function of human proteins. She works closely with a graduate student who taught her basic lab techniques and provides a valuable sounding board now that Saunders is able to initiate her own experiments. “I might come up with something to try and she’ll help me hone in on the right procedures to make it a productive inquiry.” For now, Saunders plans to enter a PhD program in biochemistry. But she believes her studies are giving her a wide range of options. “I picked biochemistry because is it is a very versatile major. I’ve been able to take a wide array of courses at UVM at different ends of the science spectrum. I feel like I’ve had the opportunity to craft my education.”

 

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 as a 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 the 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.”

 

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.”

 

Research experience leads to interest in virology

TDante Terino

Wilder, Vt., native Dante Terino ’19 has a strong interest in neurology and he knew that UVM would be the best place to pursue his education. His mom and grandfather are both alumni, and as an Army veteran, the GI Bill pays for his tuition. A key experience at UVM is working as a lab assistant for Dr. Jason Botten, who studies virus-host interactions at UVM’s Robert Larner School of Medicine. “At first I thought I’d need more courses and more experience before taking on a lab assignment, but eventually I realized there’s no time like the present to start. Dr. Botten’s lab is really good about providing training.” Terino is studying the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne flavivirus which spread from Uganda to other parts of the world including South America.

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An outbreak in Brazil in 2015 developed into a full-scale epidemic and now Zika is considered an emergent disease which can cause microcephaly and other severe brain anomalies in infants, and infections in adults that can result in the autoimmune disease Guillain–Barré syndrome. “We’re looking for virus-host interactions –we’ve identified a key host protein that seems to have an effect on Zika virus propagation,” he said. Terino continued his research through a biochemistry summer research stiped which covered his living and research expenses. “That support made it affordable to stay in Burlington. I’m really grateful for the hands-on opportunities I’ve received here.” Terino’s research experience has influenced his ambition to enter the field of virology with a specific focus on gene therapy and regenerative medicine.

 

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.”

Read more of Stella's story.

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.”

 

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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).