Winthrop summer research digs for bio-fuel, cancer treatment answers

adouglas@heraldonline.comJuly 11, 2013 

The next generation of scientists are in labs this summer at Winthrop University, studying the effect of viruses on chicken embryo optic nerves, cloning a bacteria from the forest floor in Italy and creating equations related to cancer research.

Donning a white lab coat and safety goggles, 20-year-old Winthrop student Alec Reed ran a synthetic protein through a “Jello-like” gel substance on Thursday afternoon.

Reed, other student researchers and their faculty mentor, chemistry professor Jason Hurlbert, are in the “summer of bio-fuel,” Hurlbert said.

Their research aim, in conjunction with the University of Florida and the U.S. Forest Service, is to find enzymes that can break down plant material which could be used as a fuel product.

Similar to breaking down the sugars in corn to produce ethanol fuel, the Winthrop team wants to find a bacteria that will break down plant parts normally wasted during the process such as corn husks and stems.

One of the bacteria they’re studying can be found on the forest floor in Italy, chomping away at plants.

The students get hands-on experience in the lab through Winthrop’s summer research program called SURE, tailored for science and math undergraduates. SURE stands for summer undergraduate research experience.

Seven students in the university’s math department have spent the last few weeks writing their own computer software to produce new mathematical equations that will shed light on the effectiveness of different cancer treatments.

Various organizations and groups fund the summer research at Winthrop, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, American Chemical Society, the McNair Scholars Program and the National Security Agency.

Winthrop has invested more than $2 million in equipment for undergraduate research and provides housing and other support for students in the program.

The NSA supports mathematical research to help encourage more sophomore minority college students to stay in the field, said Winthrop faculty member Joe Rusinko.

Rusinko’s cadre of math students hope their research will help medical professionals better understand the outcome of various known treatments for cancer.

On Thursday, the soon-to-be junior and senior Winthrop math students worked on papers describing their research and findings which they’ll submit for publication in academic journals.

The summer research is voluntary for students and consists of up to eight hours a day of work over eight to 10 weeks.

Hands-on experience is crucial for students who want a career in science or research or plan on applying to graduate or professional school, said faculty member Robin Lammi, who oversees the SURE program.

Since 2006, 48 students from Winthrop’s SURE program have gone on to enter Ph.D. programs and 22 students have enrolled in professional studies such as dental, veterinary or medical school.

Winthrop’s emphasis on undergraduate research is unique, Lammi said.

While faculty members guide the work in labs, she said, students gain independence as the summer weeks progress.

“Over time, each student becomes more of an individual scientist and less of a person following the cookbook steps,” Lammi said.

Brianna Milks, an 18-year-old student working in the lab with Reed, just finished her freshman year at Winthrop.

The research opportunity is entirely different from a classroom experience, she said.

Wanting to one day work in a crime lab, Milks said the summer program lets her test drive what she’ll eventually be doing in her career “rather than reading about it in a book or watching other people do it.”

In the science building next door to Milks, Winthrop students conducted research on Thursday related to optic nerves – nerves that connect the eye to the brain.

Adaeze Aninweze, a 19-year-old student, has been watching time-lapse images of chicken embryo optic nerves in culture dishes – part of a research effort to learn more about regeneration after nerve damage.

Under the guidance of faculty member Eric Birgbauer, Aninweze and other Winthrop students incubate the embryos until the chickens’ eyes have developed and optic nerves have grown.

The human nervous system is similar enough to a chicken’s nervous system, Birgbauer said, to translate their research into findings that may influence medical treatment of traumatic blindness or glaucoma.

James Vinton, a 35-year-old student, nicknamed one of the chicken embryos “George.”

Before taking classes at Winthrop, Vinton was a veterinary technician with some working knowledge of animals’ nervous systems.

His research at Winthrop will help him as he pursues a career after veterinary school, he said.

Winthrop wants to carve a niche as being a undergraduate research institution without becoming solely a research school, Lammi said.

What distinguishes the university from other larger research schools is its focus on undergraduates, she said, giving younger students an idea of what to expect in graduate school.

Hurlbert said he wants his students “in the lab all the time.”

When he was an undergraduate, research opportunities were harder to find because preference was often given to older students, he said.

Winthrop’s program challenges the fact that “a lot of people don’t think you can do much with undergraduates,” Hulbert said.

But, he said, “all it takes is some enthusiasm and just a little bit of funds.”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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