Focus on Students
Beyond the Classroom
New Grant Program Encourages Student Participation in Research
Curtis Clark’s four years as an undergraduate at The University of Texas at Tyler was a well-rounded experience. Along with pursuing his academic interests, the biology major served the Student Government Association as senator and the Tri Beta Biological Honor Society as chapter president. He also participated in Patriot athletics as a basketball player, cross country runner and president of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee.
But his most rewarding experience outside the university classroom took place in the UT Tyler lab of Dr. Ali Azghani, an associate professor of biology, microbiologist and biomedical researcher with a specialty in infectious pulmonary disease.
What began as a discussion between Clark and Dr. Azghani about Clark’s interests in microbiology and infectious disease led to the student’s involvement in the lab as a research assistant in his senior year. By the academic year’s end, Clark had advanced from assisting with projects to conducting his own research in bacteria-induced lung cell injury, under the professor’s supervision.
He continued his research as a graduate student, collaborating with Dr. Azghani to create solutions in the fight against Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium causing infections in cystic fibrosis patients and people with compromised immune systems, including cancer, AIDS and burn patients.
The student from Palestine received direction for his future in the process. Completing his graduate studies in May, he now plans to pursue doctorate studies and a career in biomedical research and academia.
Clark became one of a growing number of UT Tyler student researchers, who work with faculty to find solutions for a better tomorrow while also getting professional experience and career guidance. And he was among the first grant recipients and poster competition winners in a new program designed to further strengthen the university’s student research environment.
The UT Tyler Student Research Grants Program, sponsored by the offices of Sponsored Research and Graduate Studies and the university’s academic deans, was initiated last fall. More than 40 students involved in research applied for internal grants to fund their work for the 2009 spring semester.
Twenty grants were awarded to graduate and undergraduate students on a competitive basis for projects representing a variety of disciplines. From biology, chemistry, health and psychology to engineering, computer science, business and art history, all five colleges were represented.
The program, which will be conducted annually, is an extension of UT Tyler’s internal research grants program for faculty, said Dr. Arlene Horne, UT Tyler vice president for research and federal relations.
“We have had an ongoing program for faculty for a few years now, and we knew that the faculty always worked very diligently with students on their projects. We thought it was time to institute a similar program for students,’’ Dr. Horne said.
“If students can show that they have worked in a research program and have competed in some kind of research event, it looks good on their vitae and can actually help them get into graduate school; so it was something that we really wanted to do.’’
Students can apply each fall for grants to be awarded for the spring semester. The proposals are reviewed by the UT Tyler Research Council; grants are awarded by the Office of Sponsored Research. Each awardee receives up to $500 to cover project-related expenses. And the student’s faculty adviser receives $300 in support of the project.
Research Poster Competition
UT Tyler’s first Student Research Day in late April 2009 culminated the program’s inaugural year, with grant recipients presenting their work to the university community and public in a poster competition on campus. Judges were given the difficult task of selecting three winning posters and an honorable mention, based on design, information provided and author responses to questions, Dr. Horne said.
“The quality of research presented by the students in the competition was just outstanding. All three of the judges, as well as I, were completely impressed by each student’s knowledge of the subject material as well as their presentation skills,’’ she said.
“Many times, you will find that in competitions such as these, the students are just doing the grunt work on the project, so they have a difficult time answering questions. That was clearly not the case with this competition.
“Each and every student was very well-versed on what the problem was, how they went about investigating the problem and what the solution meant for future directions in the research area,’’ said Dr. Horne. “All of the research topics presented were clearly of high quality and all were very competitive.’’
Dr. Peter Fos agreed. The UT Tyler provost and executive vice president for academic affairs judged the event along with Gregg Lassen, executive vice president for business affairs, and Dr. T. Scott Marzilli, chair and professor of health and kinesiology.
“The competition was very tough and, as a judge, it was very difficult to select the best projects. In fact, I think there was a fine line between those selected as winners and the others,’’ Dr. Fos said.
He added, “UT Tyler has experienced a tremendous amount of growth in research over the past five years. In addition to quality researchers on our faculty, we have very capable researchers among our student body. The Student Research Grants Program and the presentation of the students’ work is a testimony to the quality research that has become a part of the fabric of our university.’’
1st Place: Infectious Disease Study
Clark placed first in the competition for his investigation of Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
“Before the judging, I had a chance to view the projects of the other researchers and they were really good – really fascinating. I was surrounded by quality research, and that made it even more exciting and more of an honor to win,’’ said the student, who received a $200 cash award and an all-expenses-paid trip to present his research at the scientific meeting of his choice – the American Society for Microbiology’s September 2009 Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in San Francisco.
“It’s a positive feeling to put time and effort and so much of your mind into your work for the sake of things outside of winning awards. But when you win awards like this, it’s really a reaffirmation of the significance of what you’re doing,’’ added Clark, who also won first- and second-place awards for presenting at ASM regional meetings.
The Azghani lab is investigating interactions between the pathogen and host – Pseudomonas aeruginosa and human lung cells.
The antibiotic-resistant bacterium is associated with several types of infections including those of the lungs and is implicated as a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in patients with cystic fibrosis. Attacking patients with weakened immune systems, the bacterium also accounts for 10 percent of all hospital-acquired infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Clark worked to provide new information about the molecular mechanism by which Pseudomonas aeruginosa attaches to lung cells and initiates infection.
In his grant project, part of his thesis research, Clark investigated Pseudomonas elastase, a bacterial enzyme believed to be involved in the infection process. Elastase is implicated in the breakdown of the epithelium, tissue that lines the surface of the lungs and serves as a protective barrier.
“What we found is that Pseudomonas disrupts the human airway epithelial barrier at least in part by disrupting or altering the host signaling cascades involved in the regulation of intercellular junctions,’’ he said.
“With this knowledge and additional research will come increased understanding of the interaction between bacterial pathogens and hosts, allowing for improved diagnostics and development of more precise treatment modalities for individuals afflicted with pulmonary infections.’’
Along with conducting important research, Clark helped set up the lab as an undergraduate and assisted in managing the facility during graduate school, Dr. Azghani said.
“Curtis does his own footwork, he reads, he communicates well, he questions, he thinks, he follows directions, he gets involved. He practically runs the lab – and keeps a very clean lab, bringing the other graduate and undergraduate students in the lab together and designating ‘clean-up days.’ He has great interpersonal skills and knows how to organize and lead.’’
2nd Place: A Different Angle
Also investigating Pseudomonas aeruginosa but from a different angle, biology graduate student Abraham Ahrin won second place and a $100 cash award in the UT Tyler research poster competition.
Ahrin conducted research for his thesis in the lab of Dr. John C. Boucher, an assistant professor of biology, microbiologist and researcher in the genetics and biochemistry of Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
The Boucher lab’s investigation centers around the analysis of proteins localized to the bacterium’s outer membrane.
“The pathogen has about 70 to 110 outer-membrane proteins but, so far, there’s very little information known about them,’’ said Ahrin, who has worked to clarify the function of one such protein, OprQ, in causing lung disease. Using genomic and proteomic techniques, he set up the bacterium genetically so that it no longer produced the protein.
“During the two years that I’ve been here, we’ve figured out that OprQ is responsible for binding to the epithelial cells of the lung. We also found that when the protein is lost, the bacterium doesn’t survive as well. This leads me to believe that this protein could be involved not only in adhering to the human lung but also compromising it, making it easier for chronic infections to occur,’’ he said.
“The information we have collected and will get published in scientific journals can be used in creating a vaccine or new drugs that target this outer membrane protein.’’
Originally from Sierra Leone in West Africa, Ahrin completed his undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Boucher recruited him in 2007 to become a UT Tyler graduate student and research assistant.
This fall, he entered a one-year post-baccalaureate program at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. Ahrin will apply to medical school next year.
“The experience I gained in research at UT Tyler was beyond my wildest imagination and really opened doors for me. When I was completing my master’s degree and applying to post-baccalaureate programs, I received several offers,’’ Ahrin said. “I will be continuing my education and, hopefully, working in research and medicine in a combined M.D./Ph.D. program.’’
Dr. Boucher said of Ahrin, “One thing you always look for in a graduate student is that self-motivating desire to learn, and Ahrin has it. He went out of his way to read and learn and figure out what he needed to do. … The work he did here at UT Tyler was exceptional.’’
3rd Place: A Matter of Conservation
Winning third place and a $50 cash award was Sheri Sanders, a second-year biology graduate student who is doing thesis research under the direction of Dr. John Placyk, an assistant professor biology, herpetologist and director of the UT Tyler Molecular Ecology Laboratory.
Sanders came to UT Tyler with undergraduate degrees in zoology and environmental management from Michigan State University. With research interests in herpetology and conservation, she is working to distinguish between species and subspecies of map turtles whose biological classification has been questioned.
The project for which she received the student grant focuses on the Sabine Map Turtle.
“There are 14 species of map turtles, they’re all found in the eastern United States and most of them overlap with each other. But there is one type that is found only in the Sabine River Watershed and is a species of conservation concern in part of its range,’’ said Sanders, who is pursuing a career in education and research.
“The Sabine Map Turtle is considered a subspecies of the Ouachita Map Turtle, which is found in the Red River Watershed, but there has been a lot of recent debate as to whether they are even closely related,’’ she said.
“It is our aim to collect and analyze data on morphological and behavioral characteristics, as well as molecular genetics to determine whether these two subspecies should be elevated to species status, maintained at their current subspecific level or clumped together as a single species. Management implications are often species-contingent, and with a current turtle-harvesting crisis, determining the Sabine River Map Turtle’s status is integral to its management and monitoring.’’
Sanders spent the summer at the Sabine and Red rivers, trapping and studying map turtles and collecting data, which she is analyzing this fall in the lab.
The student’s research is multifaceted, involving morphology, animal behavior and genetics, Dr. Placyk noted. “Given all the components involved, her work is almost a doctoral-level project,’’ he said. “Her project is pretty major compared to a lot of master’s theses, but she’s up for it. She’s a good student and I believe she can handle it.’’
Audrey Hammack of Tyler, an undergraduate majoring in chemistry, received honorable mention in the poster competition for her research titled “Thermophoretic Behavior of Polymers in Temperature-Graded Microfluidic Channels.’’ Her faculty adviser is Dr. Jennifer Kreft Pearce, assistant professor of physics.
Other 2008-09 grant recipients, and their fields of study, research topics and faculty advisers, were:
- Ella Bonner of Henderson, art history, “Longwood: An Anomaly in Natchez, Mississippi’’ (an example of 19th-century American vernacular architecture in the southern United States), Dr. Rachel Sailor.
- Nicodemus Christopher of Bullard, health and kinesiology, “Power Grip Force is Modulated in Dynamic Arm Movement,’’ Dr. Fan Gao.
- Sobia Farooq of Pakistan, mechanical engineering, “Subjective and Objective Study of Thermal Comfort,’’ Dr. Fredericka Brown.
- Sai Sri Haridass of India, electrical engineering, “Neural Network Reconfigurable Logic Cell,’’ Dr. David Hoe.
- Venkata Kumar Marri of India, computer science, “Automating the Insertion Procedure for an Analytical Query Processing System with Multiple, External Heterogeneous Data Sources,’’ Dr. Leonard Brown.
- Levi McClendon of Lufkin and Suzanne Rice of Kilgore, psychology, “What School Counselors Need to Know About Juvenile Sex Offenders Who Attend School,’’ Drs. Kirk Zinck and Leann Morgan.
- E’loria Simon-Campbell of Crockett, nursing (doctoral level), “Empowerment in Hypertensive African-American Adults,’’ Dr. Lynn Wieck.
- Lisa Brown of Tyler, biology, “Abiotic Factors Influencing the Daily Pattern of Breeding Calls in the Southern Leopard Frog, Rana utricularia, in an East Texas Floodplain,’’ Dr. Neil Ford.
- Robert Collier of Argyle, business, “Interview Me Live’’ (development of a Web site allowing students to interview live with prospective employers online), Tammy Cowart.
- Alexandra Gunawan of Austin, biology, “Genetic Analysis of Populations of Bactericera cockerelli (Potato Psyllid) in McAllen, Texas, Using Inter-Simple Sequence Repeat Data,’’ Dr. Blake Bextine.
- Hup Holland of Tyler, mathematics, “On Squarefree Words with an Additional Gap Condition,’’ Dr. David Milan.
- Christina January of Missouri, biology, “The Effects of Lead (Pb) in AtPDR12 Expression in Arabidopsis thaliana,’’ Dr. Troy Anderson.
- Bradley Martin of Palestine, biology, “Phylogenetics and Conservation Genetics of the North American Box Turtles (Terrapene sp.) and the Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum),’’ Dr. John Placyk.
- Heather McBride of Tyler, chemistry, “Study of Surface-Enhanced Fluorescence of Silver Fractals Grown Via Electroless Deposition,’’ Dr. Tanya Shtoyko.
- Brad Quillin of Longview, psychology, “Does Time Really Fly When You’re Having Fun: How Mood Effects Time Perception,’’ Dr. Eric Stocks.
- Owen Sanderson of Bonham, civil engineering, “Evaluation of Consolidation Characteristics of Cohesive Soils Using Automated Loading,’’ Dr. Clifton Farnsworth.