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Not Your Typical Summer Vacation
Biology REU Program Provides More Than Laboratory Experience

College students across the nation are enjoying hard-earned summer breaks. Some are sweating through reliable summer jobs while others are spending time at home, relaxing at the beach or kicking back by the pool.

But a dedicated group of some of the country's brightest biology undergraduates are getting their feet wet in the world of research at James Madison University.

The JMU biology department is hosting its sixth summer Research Experience for Undergraduates, a program sponsored by the National Science Foundation that brings students from universities around the country to conduct research under the guidance of faculty mentors. A dozen students from as far away as Indiana, Florida and Russia were selected from more than 150 applications to live, learn and research for 10 weeks in Harrisonburg.

REU Symposium Scheduled Thursday and Friday

Undergraduate researchers from JMU and around the country have spent a large part of their summer at JMU working on projects in biology, chemistry, materials science and mathematics and statistics. On Thursday, July 30 and Friday, July 31 they will get to showcase their projects during a two-day symposium. Check out the symposium program for details:

Beyond The Microscope And Data

The REU experience at JMU goes beyond running experiments and logging data, incorporating ethics education, social skills and community building, said Dr. Terrie Rife, assistant professor of biology at JMU and director of the biology REU program.

"Science isn't really about being in a research lab and working by yourself. It's about community and it's about sharing your ideas with others so that you get new ideas and new opinions," Rife said. "For scientists, I think it's really important to develop that sense of community. In this program, we really wanted to do that."

Research Projects

(Note: Student(s) working on project listed in parenthesis)

Dr. Stephen Baron (BC), PHA depolymerase in Streptomyces: Cloning and regulation (Shivani Dudhia, Allegheny College, Arizona; Nicole Hannum, Niagara University, New York)

Dr. Marta Bechtel (JMU), Molecular biology and mechanical properties of cartilage tissue

Dr. Tim Bloss (JMU), Control of apoptotic cell death (Michelle Fiori, JMU)

Dr. Justin Brown (JMU), The role of medullary serotonin in thermoregulatory effector pathways (Kristen Wright, Bridgewater College)

Dr. Stephen Cessna (EMU), Anti-oxidants and stress responses in Arabidopsis (Andrew Kirk, EMU; Jie Ren, J. Sargeant Reynolds CC)

Dr. Steve Cresawn (JMU), Genomics of phages infecting Mycobacteria (Chelsea White, JMU)

Dr. Susan Halsell (JMU), Genetic and molecular characterization of shape remodeling during development (Maureen Filak, JMU)

Dr. Carol Hurney (JMU), Salamander tail development

Dr. Jon Monroe (JMU), Functional genomics of beta-amylases in Arabidopsis (Kevin Fedkenheuer, JMU; Katie Weihbrecht, University of Evansville, Indiana)

Dr. Terrie Rife (JMU), Understanding transcriptional and translational controls of nitric oxide synthase I

Dr. Ken Roth (JMU), The Role of Interleukin-3 in the Immune Response in Mice (Leonid Zlotcavitch, Florida Atlantic University)

Dr. Louise Temple (JMU), Studying respiratory disease in poultry caused by Bordetella avium (Tiffany Cummings, Central State University, Michigan)

JMU's is one of few national REU programs that bring students together in collaboration with faculty members from more than one university. This year's students are working with professors from JMU, Eastern Mennonite University and Bridgewater College.

"There are other REU programs, but I think this one is fairly unique in that we have several participating schools," said Dr. Stephen Baron, an associate professor of biology at Bridgewater who is researching gene cloning and sequencing of soil bacteria with REU students. "We kind of share a pool of students from the participating institutions but also from outside, and I think it's a really good mix. It's good for all of the participating institutions and for the students."

Students and faculty members have taken part in several social gatherings, including a canoe trip, teambuilding exercises and outings in the community as well as academic workshops on research techniques and ethics. Workshop leaders included scientists from the National Institutes of Health and Virginia Tech Professor Doris Teichler Zallen, author of To Test or Not to Test, a book about the ethics of genetic testing.

"Those are issues that are going to affect them whether they go on in science or whether they don't, and it gives them a little bit of experience thinking about things they wouldn't normally have in their curriculum at their schools," Rife said. "What we want them to get out of it is that as scientists and as researchers, we have to make decisions about our work sometimes. Even as human beings, we will be affected by science-related ethical issues and we need to be informed about these issues."

Student Accommodations

Rife said she and her colleagues targeted students from smaller institutions that might not typically have the opportunity to get this type of research experience.

JMU's location in the Friendly City and campus that combines state-of-the-art facilities with a community-oriented environment make it an ideal place to introduce undergraduates to the research arena.

"It was the best choice when it came down to location and the project in general. It's been interesting. I go to a really small school, so here it's a huge difference," said Katie Weihbrecht, a biology major at the University of Evansville in Indiana. "It's been a lot of fun because I've gotten to learn a lot of new techniques and things that I haven't actually gotten to do at my own school."

That goal is a natural fit for JMU, an institution that has become a national leader in emphasizing undergraduate research, Rife said.

JMU recently was named one of 35 "programs to look for" for undergraduate research by U.S. News and World Report and has seen its external funding for research programs increase more than 700 percent in the past 15 years.

"I think the JMU faculty are all really dedicated to working with undergraduates and helping them as they start their careers," Rife said. "This is giving them an opportunity to see what it would be like to be in a research laboratory, whether they would want to go on to graduate school, to go on to do this as a permanent career."

Faculty researchers also get the benefit of having the help of talented and dedicated students on a full-time basis, a luxury that is difficult to come by during the regular academic year.

"I actually went to JMU as an undergraduate and worked in a lab, and for me it was a great experience. I got a lot of time with my advisor, a lot of one-on-one attention, and so it was really important to me to come back not necessarily to JMU but to an environment like that and have that same kind of experience again, and so far it's worked out great," said Dr. Steve Cresawn, assistant professor of biology at JMU and an REU researcher. Cresawn's research explores viruses that infect bacteria cells and the potential for their potential application in clinical and diagnostic tools.

"It's terrific because during the academic year, students come in maybe five or six hours a week, and it's really difficult to get much done," Cresawn said. "Over the summer, when there's not a lot else going on and people can be in the lab for several hours everyday, it makes it a lot easier. To me it's been invaluable."

JMU junior Chelsea White worked for Cresawn during the previous year but said the opportunity for intensive research in the summer has helped prepare her for future work.

"I've been doing research since I was a freshman here, but I think I've learned more this summer than I have in the past two years," White said. "I've been in a lab for hours every day and have been doing a lot of reading and a lot of learning about new procedures that I've never done before."

Heading Home

When the 10-week period ends July 25, the students present their research to the group and discuss the implications of their combined efforts. It's a practice that is vital to anyone who hopes to have a future career in science and research.

But whether or not their future plans include research, Rife said the connections they make during the program last a lifetime.

"We've had students write back and say that's it's been really helpful to them in graduate school. A lot of them have said they really appreciate all the friends that they met and made. And some of them write back and say, 'You know, I found out based on this that research really wasn't my thing,'" Rife said. "And even though you're kind of sad to hear that, that's a good thing for them. You're glad that this gave them an opportunity to find that out."


Published July 2009