Welch summer research program turns students into scientists

PLAINVIEW – Five Wayland Baptist University students have returned to campus this fall as scientists, having put their studies into play with summer research projects funded by the Robert A. Welch Foundation.

Tierra Lozano, Joshua Smedema, Araceli Torres, Sidney Perez and Sadie Argueta participated in the program, which has funded undergraduate research projects at Wayland since 2005. Each student received a $3,500 stipend for an eight-week project, plus three hours of research credit applied to their chemistry or cell biology degree programs. The university provides room and board for Welch grant participants.

Dr. Adam Reinhart, Dean of Mathematics and Sciences, explained the significance summer research projects have on participants as they transition from science students to research scientists.

“One analogy I like to use is with music,” he said. “You can learn a lot about music, but at some point, you must play an instrument. That’s what scientific research is to a scientist.”

“It’s not class-level research,” explained Dr. Robert Moore, Professor of Chemistry, who coordinates the research program. “It’s stuff you would see happening at graduate school, not undergraduate.”

Just as a musician must learn before performing, Welch summer researchers must prepare to conduct their projects. So, after being accepted into the program, they are paired with a Welch faculty adviser and enrolled in a one-hour research class during the Spring semester.

“Throughout that semester, they work with their adviser to get background knowledge for the project they want to do,” Moore explained. “They read some of the papers and go back through old research. They get up to speed. Then, they identify the research question they want to try to answer. Once they have identified their project, they get more educated on that aspect and get technical training on the protocols and techniques they are going to be using. By April they have gone from ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this’ to ‘I can’t wait to be started.’ It is so exciting to see the transformation.”

“One of the cool things to teach them about research is that it is called ‘research’ not ‘search,”’ Moore said. “Troubleshooting is the fun part of research. You get an idea, you go try it, it doesn’t work, and then you get to sit around and think about why it doesn’t work.”

Moore said students don’t see all the tangents that researchers go through.

“If you are sitting in a class, you are learning about science, but you are not doing it. You are not generating new knowledge, and that’s really what is means to be a scientist — to generate knowledge that no one has generated before.”

Smedema, who is from Capetown, South Africa, worked on getting protein from Tuberculosis RecA.

“It was a long process,” said the senior. “We are pretty excited because we actually got protein.”

Using plasmid designed by a previous Welch summer researcher, Smedema transformed that plasmid into host cells and used the host cell’s machinery to grow it. “We isolated or extracted the protein from there.” He then separated the proteins on gels so it could be visualized to determine if it was accurate. That allowed him to then run experiments on the protein.

Lozano, a senior chemistry major, worked on exploring RecA as a cause of mutations in Tuberculosis, causing drug resistance.

“My focus was to see if we could see strand exchange,” she said. “We were trying to do it through biotinylation, instead of radioactive phosphates. It is pretty cool because biotinylation glows so that we can actually see the signal. The thing is that with strand exchange you need ATP — Adenosine triophosphate. However, it inhibits biotinylation and we ended up not seeing the signal.”

“We wanted to see if we could use apyrase to take out the ATP so that we would actually get signal,” she said. “It worked! Apyrase was able to take out our ATP. However, we were not getting as much signal as we wanted. So, then we had to decide how much are we were losing.”

Using chromatography, Torres, a senior biology major, found promising results in isolating compounds found in plant extracts to treat prostate cancer cells. She started with about 20 plant extracts and found two to be most cytotoxic to prostate cancer cells. She then began to isolate specific biologically active molecules from these two plants.

Torres conducted her research under Reinhart, while Smedema and Lozano worked under Moore. The research projects of Perez and Argueta were conducted under Dr. Matthew Dyson, Assistant Professor of Biology and Chemistry. Perez and Argueta sought to better understand the sex chromosomes of horned lizards.

While not endangered, the population of horned lizards has declined to where it is considered a threatened species. Building on previous research, Perez and Argueta used a PCR-based approach to the study of the horned lizard’s DNA to determine the sex of hatchlings.

“Our project was to go out, take samples, swabs, and bring them and put them in our master mix and put it in the PCR. On that data we were trying to figure out if you can tell if it is male or female based on the results it gives us,” said Perez, a senior biology major.

Argueta, a junior molecular biology major, said her project focused on specificity.

“We are taking Texas Horned Lizards and trying to figure out how to fix that they are dying off young,” she said. “Part of it is looking at their X and Y chromosomes. With the Texas Horned Lizard, we don’t know.” She was identifying the best way to determine the sex.

The student researchers have opportunities to present their findings at professional meetings like American Chemical Society and Texas Academy of Science later this year. And all five students say their summer projects have given them new appreciation for research.

“This research program is a great learning experience because it challenges you in so many ways,” Lozano said. “I think it humbled me because I now know that no matter how many classes I’ve taken in the past, it’s not about that. It’s always a process. You are always going to have to refresh on what you learned in the past.”

Argueta said she now wants to more than just normal lab work. “I want to do long-term research. This has made me really love it.”

“This has given me insight about how research works,” Perez said. “It has potentially changed things down the road for me on what career choice I want to do.”

“My dad is in the medical field, and he does a lot of research,” Smedema said. “Growing up, I thought at some point I would get closer to it, but this has been really cool.”

“This is a very good opening experience into research and a gateway to see if research is for you,” Torres said. Asked about presenting her findings, she said, “I can’t wait.”