Four years ago, a junior at the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., approached Assistant Professor of Biology Pamela Tuma about procuring a research internship in her CUA lab. The professor agreed and started the teen, George Kannarkat, on research into the effect of alcohol on liver cells — at the time, a new area of investigation for Tuma.
Kannarkat’s yearlong research continued in the hands of then-CUA undergraduate Tara Rutledge, and that work helped attract research funds for Tuma’s team to further study alcoholic liver cells, including a two-year $375,000 grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Despite the fact that alcoholic liver disease is a major health concern in the United States, little is known about how alcohol induces liver injury.
Rutledge, who graduated last May, will appear as co-author with Tuma in a scientific paper on the findings. Another grant based
on Tuma’s work with liver cells is now supporting two graduate students and several undergraduates in their research efforts.
In the world of science, the conventional wisdom has held that anyone lacking graduate-level experience doesn’t have the tools to contribute to solid research. That wisdom now seems outdated.
“In recent years universities and research foundations in the natural and some social sciences have increasingly encouraged involvement by undergraduates in cutting-edge research projects under the direction of faculty,” says L.R. Poos, dean of CUA’s School of Arts and Sciences. “Such opportunities enable students to evolve far beyond the textbook-and-guided-laboratory level into a more professional experience of research and engages them in a different type of interaction with faculty, making them more formidable candidates for graduate school or technical employment.”
So far nine CUA undergraduates have earned course credit collaborating on Tuma’s research, and three of these students will have their findings published in a scientific journal in the coming months. In fact, most CUA biology majors will have participated in a graduate-level research study by the time they graduate, according to Tuma.
And when it comes to getting younger students involved in scientific research, Tuma has shown she’s not afraid to reach back into the pre-college set: Three other Thomas Jefferson students have worked with Tuma since Kannarkat — the son of CUA Assistant Controller Lizy Kannarkat — began his initial research.
Tuma calls her work with the next generation of scientists a “high-risk, high-payoff project” and admits it requires intensive supervision on the part of her graduate students and herself. It is easy for research professors to forget the teaching aspect of their jobs, says Tuma, and interacting with young students in this way helps her remember that linchpin of her profession.
As in many spheres of work, the younger generation makes up with enthusiasm and energy what it lacks in concrete experience and knowledge, which can add an invigorating quality to the lab, says Tuma.
“Graduate students can become jaded and tired and feel the pressure of the world,” she says. “The younger students bring freshness to the lab. Their minds are so alive, they’re so engaged and so willing to help.”
And, Tuma notes, getting one’s research published while still an undergraduate is so unusual that it can open doors to graduate school or a good job.
For Christina Cheng, B.A. 2005 — a former undergraduate researcher who will be listed as a co-author of one of Tuma’s upcoming publications — those open doors led to the Washington Cancer Institute. A clinical research associate with the institute since November 2005, Cheng monitors breast cancer patients participating in clinical studies, a position that requires her to work closely with doctors, pharmacists and labs. Luckily, she had plenty of practice in college. — M.M.
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