Undergraduate science research both accelerates scientific discovery and offers a unique opportunity to undergraduates to contribute to and participate in cutting-edge research.
“It’s a way for them to pursue a passion and learn about a subject in much more depth,” said UR’s Director of Undergraduate Research, physics professor Steve Manly, of student research at the UofR. “It’s a fabulous way for them to learn about things that aren’t limited by the little constraining boxes we put around learning in a classroom.”
Getting involved in undergraduate research requires the motivation to identify and pursue a passion, a process that can be extremely rewarding.
“In the end it really boils down to a few bullet points,” Manly said. “[Students] should do well in their classes, try to figure out what they’re interested in, and then they need to network.”
Students interested in getting involved in research should talk to other students, administrative staff, and professors, as well as search the web for opportunities. Undergraduate research is one of the most independent pursuits available to students, and performance in undergraduate research speaks to a student’s ability to problem solve and think critically.
“It’s the best way we have to teach because of the very nature of the fact that problem solving isn’t perfectly formulated,” Manly said. “It’s a great way to help students develop critical thinking skills. In the end, that’s what this whole place is all about.”
“Having undergraduates in the lab allows us to expand what we do and to take on riskier projects and try new things,” Vera Gorbunova, Doris Johns Cherry Professor and Professor of Biology, said. Spouses Vera Gorbunova and Andrei Seluanov work in collaboration in the biology department to conduct world-class research on the genetics of aging and cancer in rodents and humans. Their joint labs take a special interest in extremely long-lived species such as the naked mole rat, which remarkably lives more than 30 years and rarely, if ever, contracts cancer.
Junior Daniel Radin has been working in the Gorbunova-Seluanov lab since last spring. He is currently exploring the possibility of using hyaluronic acid, a compound abundant in naked mole rats, to treat cancer in humans. The anticancer properties of hyaluronic acid are being investigated by the group as a potential explanation for the exceptional longevity and cancer evasion of naked mole rats. “We have learned a lot about longevity mechanisms in the naked mole rat, but the more we learn the more questions we can ask,” Gorbunova said. Here, Radin reflects on his undergraduate research experience and the significance of the work he is doing in the lab.
How has undergraduate research shaped your experience at UR?
As it currently stands, we are in the middle of a biological revolution. With current medical technologies, we are able to ask and answer questions that we were not able to, even 10 years ago. Thus, the educational paradigm, especially for the natural sciences, is becoming outmoded. While learning classical cell biology is important, memorizing a pathway does not develop critical thinking abilities. Asking questions whose answers are not in a textbook will develop critical thinking skills necessary for success in any field, which is why research for me has drastically changed the way I approach my education and has only enhanced my already solid experience at UR.
What is the project you are currently working on?
The naked mole rat has a very long lifespan, compared to genetically-related rodents, and doesn’t get cancer. Before I entered the lab, it published a paper describing one mechanism conferring cancer resistance to the naked mole rat. Right now, I am investigating whether such mechanisms can be adapted to other rodents or even human cells in an effort to more strictly regulate the cell cycle. If you can more heavily regulate the cell cycle, you may be looking at cancer preventive techniques and avoid the need to actually treat cancer.
What are your plans, moving forward with your research?
The general motto is “publish or perish.” I am currently investigating ways to produce large quantities of the protein that prevents cancer formation in the naked mole rat to investigate potential applications in cancer, as well as other areas. This protein may be able to slow growth of cells that have already become cancerous. There may also be applications in stem cell maintenance, which would be nice to investigate because stem cell biology is a very big area right now, and is only getting bigger.
What do you find fascinating about the work you’re doing?
What I like most about this lab is how deeply we go to make sense out of how other mammals protect themselves from cancer. Obviously, humans are an incredibly advanced species, with neurological capabilities outmatching most other mammals, but we still have much to learn and, hopefully, we will one day be able to adapt other species’ abilities to combat our own diseases.
What significance do/will your findings have in the scientific community, and in the general population?
If we can use what the naked mole rat uses to prevent cancer formation, that would be a home-run. There is a huge amount of money being funneled into cancer treatment research, but if we could circumvent the problem altogether, we would save a massive amount of time, money and lives.