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STEMCats End Spring Semester Strong with Research

By Whitney Harder

(May 4, 2015) — In the fall of 2014, a group of 235 incoming students became the first class of STEMCats at the University of Kentucky. This week, they are not only wrapping up their first year at UK, but also a semester of original research; an unusual experience for many college freshmen.

The STEMCats living learning program, sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and directed by UK Department of Biology Chair Vincent Cassone, was launched to increase retention of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors at UK.

A key component of the program is an authentic research experience for the freshmen, in addition to pre-fall "FastTrack" courses, a living learning community and STEM exploration courses.

With 16 departments and 62 faculty members involved in the program, a range of original research opportunities were available for STEMCats this semester. From "Analysis of Gene Expression During Salamander Tail Regeneration" to "Clean Water through Chemistry," the projects engaged faculty members and students across many departments and majors.

"This is fundamentally different from a traditional lab class; the students are doing something that has never been done before to address questions to which we don’t yet know the answers," said Douglas Harrison, associate professor in the Department of Biology who advised the "Sex, Flies, and Good Gene Hunting" project with Associate Professor Peter Mirabito.

Another project, "Drug Interactions in Breast Cancer," could help scientists understand why the drug tamoxifen may not work as a therapy for breast cancer in some patients. Hollie Swanson, professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences, and Ok-Kyong Park-Sarge, associate professor in the Department of Physiology, worked with 10 STEMCats students on the project. The group focused on the question, "If breast cancer patients taking tamoxifen are also taking drugs to treat epilepsy or heart failure, would those drugs interfere with tamoxifen and inhibit their breast cancer treatment?" 

In addition to addressing a real-world issue through research, it was also a learning experience for students on what goes into a research project and how a lab works.

"I think it is important for the students to understand how scientists ask questions and how scientists' work improves our ability to treat diseases like cancer," Swanson said.

In the "Sex, Flies, and Good Gene Hunting" project, STEMCats students searched for genes that contribute to reproductive lifespan, or how long an individual will be fertile. Because of its short lifespan, the fruit fly was used to conduct the research. Specifically, students performed crosses to determine the effects of bacterial infection and antibiotic treatments on the reproductive lifespan.

"The process of aging has many similarities across most animal species," Harrison said. "We anticipate that the findings from this research are likely to point to many genetic and environmental influences that will have similar effects on other animals, including humans."

The team is completing the last of their fly crosses and beginning to analyze the data. The data collected by students this semester will be added to a larger analysis of research by previous undergraduates, and the aggregate data will be used for a genome-wide association study that seeks to identify the genes affecting reproductive lifespan.

On Wednesday, April 29, STEMCats students presented these and other research projects at the UK Showcase of Undergraduate Scholars and the STEMCats Research Forum, held in conjunction with the showcase.

Shane D'Souza, a freshman biology major, and Alyssa Allen, a freshman medical laboratory science pre-major, helped present their group's project researching the regenerative abilities of axolotls (Mexican salamanders), led by Randal Voss, professor of biology.

"After coming to UK and studying in Dr. Voss' lab, I found myself very interested in research and genetics," D'Souza said. "I feel it really opened a new field of study to me."

Allen, who said she was at first very nervous to present at the showcase, enjoyed speaking to others one-on-one about the project.

"This interested me so much…I thought it was awesome," she said.  

Another key component of the STEMCats program, closely related to the success of the research component, is the STEM-focused professional development for faculty. On Saturday, April 25, the STEM Teaching Enhancement Workshop and Scholarly Forum was held on campus.

Lectures were given on implementing high-impact STEM teaching practices; using technology to engage students and enhance learning; web-based homework; diversity in STEM fields; research integration and interaction in class; and more.

Stephen Testa, associate professor of chemistry, presented his STEMCats research project at the forum as a "teaching tip" talk titled, "Using a Freshman Chemistry Laboratory Experiment as a Springboard for Original Research." And that's exactly what Testa did this semester.

The STEMCats research project, called the Student Centered Original Research Experience, or SCORE, tasked STEMCats students with improving a current lab project taught in CHE 111 (the general chemistry lab).

"The whole experience was really a win-win situation for everyone involved," Testa said. "It was amazing to see these students in action, and to see how their abilities and knowledge evolved over the semester."

For CHE 111, the project is presented as a murder mystery, where students have to solve a simulated crime involving simulated DNA samples.

STEMCats students found multiple strategies for reducing material consumption (which will save money for the CHE 111 lab); found how to increase the rate of the reaction (which saves time); and figured out how to broaden the reactivity of DNA nucleobases (which will allow for more discrimination between the murder mystery samples that students test).

"For faculty involved in the program, it’s the curiosity to find new answers that drove us and got us excited about science and research when we first started out," Harrison said. "We hope that the freshman STEMCats research experience will generate that same enthusiasm in these students. At the same time, they’re learning to think critically, a skill that can be applied to anything they do afterward."