BY EMILY GUEVARA
This summer 10 undergraduate students are getting the opportunity to participate in research with faculty mentors at The University of Texas at Tyler and Tyler Junior College.
The Summer Research Academy is conducted through the UT System Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP).
The program, which is in its 21st year, is supported by National Science Foundation funding and aims to encourage undergraduate students from underrepresented populations such as women, African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and military veterans to pursue graduate studies in the STEM fields. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Although UT Tyler has been a part of the program since its inception, Tyler Junior College joined as a community college partner this year.
The local student research spans biology, chemistry and the computer science fields. As part of the program, each student receives a $3,000 stipend, and faculty mentors receive $1,000 in funding for supplies and materials to support research activities, according to a university news release.
Participating students will take part in a video conference with all the LSAMP fellows and mentors, according to the news release. The students also will present posters that display their research findings during the UT LSAMP Student Research Conference, scheduled for September at UT Permian Basin, according to the news release.
“This is what started undergraduate research at UT Tyler,” said Dr. Stephen Rainwater, campus director of the UT Tyler LSAMP program. “Research was being done and faculty were being recognized, but working alone by themselves without graduate students. … So it’s really been an upward curve … (when it comes to the) amount of research that is done here. No doubt, this has had a major impact.”
LEARNING THE ROPES
Inside the biomedical research lab, Jesus Espinoza wiped down the workspace behind the fume hood window.
As he prepared the area for lab work, his faculty mentor, Dr. Ali Azghani, a UT Tyler biology professor, explained the work.
Azghani’s research focuses on Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an opportunistic bacterium that infects people with an already weakened immune system due to underlying diseases such as cancer. This is also the primary bacterium that causes recurring infection and inflammation in people with cystic fibrosis and can be fatal.
This summer, Espinoza is comparing the effect of two forms of a commonly used antibiotic, conventional tobramycin and the liposome-encapsulated form, on bacterial adhesion to lung cells. He’s doing this to see whether one form is better. Liposomes are a microscopic drug-delivery system designed for greater drug effectiveness and safety, Azghani said.
Scientists believe the liposomal antibiotics work better and are safer than the conventional form because the drug is released from the carrier slowly and stays in the body for a longer period of time, Azghani said.
The goal of the present research project is to design the best carrier for delivery of commonly used antibiotics to specific sites in the human body, Azghani said.
There are only a few liposomal antibiotics available on the market, and scientists are hoping to change that, Azghani said. However, getting to that point will take years of basic and clinical research along with millions of dollars.
Although Espinoza doesn’t intend to go into research, he is considering a career in the medical field.
He graduated from TJC in May with a kinesiology degree and plans to attend Texas A&M University in the fall to continue his studies in that field.
He said he hopes the knowledge and experience from his time in the lab and under the tutelage of Azghani will help him as he continues his education and moves closer to his career.
“It’s been challenging,” Espinoza, 20, of Palestine, said. “I never thought I would be in a research lab.”
BUILDING THEIR SKILLS
Senior biology majors Larrimy Brown, 26, and Edith Plants-Paris, 21, are self-described minorities in their major. The women said many biology students plan to attend medical school, but they want to earn doctorates and become scientists.
Ms. Brown, a senior biology major and Navy veteran from Avinger, is working on a natural history/evolutionary biology project involving two species of ribbon snakes.
These snakes are classified under an old system based primarily on external/physical characteristics and geographic range.
Ms. Brown is conducting genetic barcoding analyses — a method using a specific gene to classify all living organisms — to determine if the original classification is correct.
Her faculty mentor, UT Tyler assistant professor of biology Dr. John Placyk, said what they are finding is that it isn’t correct.
Determining the correct classification is important for conservation purposes and for the study of species over time and space, Placyk said.
Ms. Plants-Paris, a senior biology major from Diana, is creating a molecular database of freshwater mussel species in East Texas, which is one component of a much larger project.
Placyk said the goal of this work is to use the database, or key, to figure out which fish the mussels attach themselves to during their larval stage.
This information is important for conservation efforts because to save mussels, you must save the fish they use as hosts, Placyk said. Many of Texas’ freshwater mussels are of conservation concern. As filter feeders, mussels play an important role in maintaining the freshwater ecosystem.
Both women said the experience working in a lab is important to their future.
“I can’t really emphasize how valuable it is to know how to work in (a) lab when you get to grad school,” Ms. Brown said.
Ms. Brown wants to earn a doctorate in ecology or conservation biology and work as a college professor and scientific researcher.
Ms. Plants-Paris wants to earn a doctorate in biology and focus on genetics and become a professor.
It is research in the STEM fields that leads to the discoveries of new medicines, new ways of securing computer systems and more, said Rainwater, who is UT Tyler’s Lecil and Barbara Chandler endowed professor of computer science.
This research and the discoveries that come from it advance society. That is why it is so important, Rainwater said.
Gigi Delk, TJC’s principal investigator for the LSAMP program, said through the program students see the realities of research — that it’s not an 8-to-5 job, but it can be enjoyable.
“That’s the focus is to get people excited and addicted and thinking about the idea that they could go into research,” she said.
Dr. Tanya Shtoyko, associate professor of chemistry and an LSAMP faculty mentor, has had several students participate in the program. She said it’s good for the students because they gain experience, assist with research and have the potential to get published in an academic journal.
“I don’t see any bad sides of this program, only good sides,” said Dr. Shtoyko, whose LSAMP student this year, Randy Sronce, is working on research into nanostructures, which can be useful in technology for early disease detection.
Rainwater said without the LSAMP program, there would be limited opportunities for students to do undergraduate research, he said.
“What this program has done most significantly is to help raise the culture of research at UT Tyler …” he said. “Not too many years ago, there was hardly any or very little formal STEM research being done. This, among the faculty, has helped to raise that level of focus so that UT Tyler is not just (a) teaching institution, not just a research institution, but both.”