Natural Sciences Students Put Themselves Under the Microscope During Summer Research
When Anna Vo, Sabrina Dilts, and Hunter Sweet reported to work in the organic chemistry lab in the new Science Building this summer, they actively looked into how various therapeutically relevant molecules might inhibit an enzyme associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
The work was real science—meaning it was a hands-on, trial-and-error process that gave each of the three undergraduate students a chance to learn what working in a research lab is like. And they wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
“I fell in love with chemistry in high school but the idea of working in a lab always seemed so lonely to me. Being part of this team and developing close relationships with my peers has been an amazing experience,” Vo said. “And I’m incredibly flattered that Dr. Arpin trusts us enough to do this work with her.”
Working with chemistry professor Carolynn Arpin, who mentors the students that create and purify molecules via synthetic chemistry, the students monitored the activity of acetylcholinesterase (AChE) after it was introduced to the potential inhibitors. In some cases, the contents of their beakers showed an absence of yellow color, promising a clear indication the molecules were inhibiting enzymatic activity—exactly what they were hoping for.
As part of the College of Natural Sciences’ Summer Research Institutes, these three student-researchers were among 44 students in chemistry, physics, biology, and earth and environmental sciences who spent 10 weeks between semesters gaining hands-on experience with a research topic in their field of study. Supported by a $5,000 stipend for a summer of full-time research, they learn to balance collaborative and individual work, and jumpstart their careers as researchers.
For Arpin’s students, the ultimate objective is to contribute to the medical community’s goal of easing or delaying some symptoms of Alzheimer’s. To do so, they’d need to keep AChE from breaking down a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which leads to better communication between nerve cells in the brain.
It’s fascinating work that is not just about running experiments and reporting the results, but also thinking about how the research can be scaled-up and reproduced on a commercial scale, the students said.
“Just since the start of the summer, this team has gained a lot of independence and critical thinking skills,” Arpin said.
Meanwhile, downstairs in the physics department, senior Mihail Popa is looking for good vibrations. That is, he worked with assistant professor Paul Arpin on his joint research with the Quantum DNA Research Group at Boise State University. The researchers in Boise are building entangled systems that could be the basis for advances in quantum computing (considered by many in physics as the industry of the future). One challenge is the molecules vibrate in response to light and temperature and that affects how they interact with each other after they absorb light and how long they remain entangled.
Arpin and Popa used ultrafast spectroscopy (the study of the absorption and emission of light by matter) to better understand the molecules’ entanglement and vibrations and—they hope—come up with a solution to create more coherent vibrations. This is important to help quantum computing researchers understand how to improve the design of their systems.
Many of the practical ways this type of research will impact the world likely haven’t been invented yet. But, long-term, research like this can lead to the design of better solar panels and other developments.
For Popa, summer research was both a practical and personal decision.
“I want to go to medical school, and this will help on my résumé,” he said. “But it was more than that. I also really like helping out the Physics Department. We are a small group who all know and support each other. It was very gratifying to help Dr. Arpin make progress on his model.”
And they made a breakthrough. Popa created a two-dimensional model in Python to help Arpin better understand the vibrational coherences.
“In many industries, close enough means you can move forward,” said Arpin. “But in science, close enough isn’t a viable option. It simply means there is more work to do, and Mihail really helped us move the research forward.”
Over in Holt Hall, biology professor Kristen Gorman supervised three students studying Medaka fish to gain insights into idiopathic scoliosis (IS), the most common form of human abnormal spinal curvature.
Levi Medina, Karen Contreras, and Kiara Onuoha spent the summer in the Gorman Lab taking care of the tiny fish, cleaning tanks, collecting and putting eggs in an incubator, and, most importantly, analyzing fish with scoliosis under a microscope and recording data.
“So little is known about IS, including what causes it in humans, that every little bit of research we do leads to some discoveries and causes us to dig deeper, which is what science is all about,” Gorman said.
To date, progress in understanding the fundamental biology of IS has been limited by the lack of a genetic or developmental animal model. That’s where the Medaka fish, a species that also suffers naturally genetic mutations that cause abnormal spinal curvature, come in.
Contreras, an organic chemistry major, said she enjoyed getting lost in the admittedly meticulous work of comparing a specific lineage of Medaka fish that had spinal curvatures and those that didn’t. She introduced baby fish to a chemical treatment that dyed their skeletons red. That way she could compare bone formation in scoliosis versus non-scoliosis fish via a microscope.
“It was my first time doing lab research and it was a little intimidating, but Dr. Gorman was so welcoming and passionate about her work that it made it easy to come in motivated and ready to contribute,” she said.
Gorman takes great pride in how much her students have grown personally and professionally in just 10 weeks.
“The students can feel themselves achieve and see their potential expand every week. They also are learning how to talk about science and how to explain it to others, which is so important in our field,” Gorman said.
Contreras came to Gorman’s lab as one of 20 students in the Chico STEM Connections (CSC2), a program funded by a US Department of Education grant that offers support, resources, and opportunities to underrepresented students majoring in engineering, computer science, construction management, natural sciences, and agriculture. As a first-generation Latinx student who is a long way from her Los Angeles home, she sought out CSC2 as a way to better connect with her peers while building a support system.
“STEM classes are hard in general,” she said. “It’s even harder when there is a lack of diversity in the field. CSC2 has made me feel welcome and safe and it has helped me realize that I’m capable of achieving my goals.”
That’s familiar feedback to Jackelin Villalobos, the program coordinator for CSC2 in the College of Natural Sciences who is also a current graduate student and former CSC2 summer researcher herself. When she was an undergrad, she noticed the lack of diversity among faculty. And while there is clearly more work to do, she notes that the hiring of biology professor Gerald Cobián has been inspiring for Latinx students.
Now in a role to support students from similar underrepresented backgrounds, Villalobos schedules and runs weekly development workshops that cover topics like presentation skills, developing a CV, and preparing grad school applications. She also serves as a mentor for current students to make sure they are on track and to decide if summer research is right for them.
“I advise students who enjoyed the lab portion of their classes to go for it. We treat it as a learning experience and it’s a great opportunity to take it a step further and determine if research is the right academic and career path for you,” she said.
Applications for summer research for 2023 open in the spring. Students who are interested should check with their respective departments.