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HHMI program sparks student research
November 7, 2012Tweet
Binghamton University’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute Program has helped two undergraduate students realize their passion for research and set them on the path toward graduate education.
Davis Anugo, a senior majoring in biochemistry, participated in last year’s HHMI Program — the first year of a four-year program — and encouraged his friend Katherine Rimpel, a junior majoring in biochemistry, to apply for this year’s program. Rimpel was accepted, and the two now work on different phases of the same larger research project.
“Davis told me that he got a great experience out of HHMI,” Rimpel said, “and when I looked it up, I saw all of the distinguished faculty involved and became interested in the research projects and the chance to put to use what I’d learned in class.”
Binghamton University’s HHMI Program is the product of a $1.4 million, four-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to fund undergraduate interdisciplinary research opportunities focused on solving problems in the life sciences. Undergraduate students with majors in the physical sciences, mathematics, computer science, systems science and engineering spend a year working in teams with faculty mentors on an interdisciplinary collaborative project.
Anna Tan-Wilson, HHMI program director and professor of biological sciences, said that one of the project’s aims is to encourage students who are underrepresented in research disciplines, like women and minority groups, to pursue careers in research. It also hopes to encourage students to go on to graduate school.
“The goal of HHMI is to help educate the scientific leaders of the future and put them on the forefront of research,” Tan-Wilson said. “So many students from last year’s cohort went on to graduate schools, and a lot of them were undecided when we first started.”
Both Anugo and Rimpel said that the HHMI Program has influenced their decision to attend graduate school. Rimpel said she plans to get a master’s degree in biochemistry, and Anugo said he plans to take a year off to do research before pursuing an MD or a PhD, or both.
As an HHMI participant, Anugo conducted research in Wayne Jones’ lab. Professor of chemistry and interim dean of Harpur College, Jones is working to create florescent conjugated polymers that can detect metals in aqueous environments, which may be useful in detecting harmful pollutants in water. Anugo continues to work in the lab, despite the end of his cohort.
“Research never really ends,” Anugo said. “In my introductory classes, I would ask questions and teachers would say, ‘This is beyond the scope of this class,’ and you never hear that in research. You ask your questions, and you can problem solve. You are at the forefront, and it’s really exhilarating.”
Jones said that he has seen Anugo’s interest in research and problem-solving increase over time.
“It was clear from the beginning that Davis is a very bright young student,” he said. “I think the signature of a successful interaction is when students keep right on going with the research when their cohort is over. Not only did Davis discover his interest in research, but he continued working after the project was done.”
Jones and Tan-Wilson nominated Anugo for the Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP), which Anugo calls “HHMI Level 2.” The program, meant to encourage diversity in scientific fields, gave Anugo the chance to spend the past summer conducting research at a different university, networking with professionals in the field, and finally, presenting his work at a conference.
“EXROP gave me a list of all this crazy research, awesome professors at awesome schools doing great things, and I picked the University of Pennsylvania, doing biochemistry research with Dr. Amita Sehgal,” Anugo said. “Essentially, I was working with human cells and figuring out a part of the circadian mechanism. It was probably the best time I’ve ever had.”
With this experience in mind, Anugo encouraged Rimpel to apply for the HHMI Program. Now, Rimpel works under Karin Sauer, associate professor of biological sciences, using the polymer sensors Anugo is working on to detect metal ions in biofilms, massive communities of bacteria, to find out if there is a reduction mechanism in the biofilms that can be used to determine how they disperse. Dispersion would make communities of bacteria more susceptible to antibiotic treatment.
So far, Rimpel’s efforts in the lab have not gone unnoticed.
“It is a pleasure working with Katherine,” Sauer said. “She is a very quick learner and tries different approaches and techniques without hesitation, usually with great success. She gives the impression of being very comfortable working in the lab.”
Rimpel said that the HHMI Program has given her a great impression of what life as a researcher is like.
“There’s a lot of hard work that goes into it, but it’s worth it,” Rimpel said. “HHMI really opened my eyes to what graduate school could be like and fueled my desire to go into research. It has really helped me a lot.”