Chem Major’s Cancer Research Is a Different Kind of “SURFing”

 

One of the ways in which the liberal arts demonstrates its power is when faculty from one academic major actively support and encourage a student from a completely different major, even when those programs seemingly have nothing in common.

Chemistry major Veronica Able-Thomas ’19 learned first-hand last winter the strong connection across disciplines found at liberal arts schools such as Hollins.

“Ever since I can remember I’ve always loved chemistry, but at Hollins I also took French classes throughout my first year and during the first semester of my sophomore year. I actually got to spend the January 2017 Short Term in France,” Able-Thomas recalls. “While I was there [Professor of French] Annette Sampon-Nicolas contacted me about a summer research opportunity that would complement my pre-med track and biochemistry concentration at Hollins.”

Sampon-Nicolas urged Able-Thomas to pursue a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI) in Roanoke, where undergraduate students spend ten weeks in a rigorous experiential learning program.

“We’re bringing students from Virginia Tech and several other universities into an environment of trans-disciplinary collaboration and working relationships,” VTCRI Associate Professor Michael Fox said in a recent Virginia Tech news article. “We’re providing the students with hands-on, independent research at VTCRI in the laboratory as well as special seminars that highlight cutting-edge neuroscience research at Virginia Tech.”

Able-Thomas was one of only 20 students accepted out of more than 80 applicants into the SURF program. She spent the summer working with Assistant Professor James Smyth and Research Assistant Professor Samy Lamouille in the Molecular Visualization SURF program investigating brain cancer.

“I focused on glioblastoma, an extremely lethal brain tumor that accounts for the highest number of all malignant tumors,” she explains. “Glioblastoma encompasses a group of cells known as glioma stem cells, which have shown to be resistant to temozolomide, a drug taken during chemotherapy.

“Previous research identified a new molecule that can prevent migration of glioma stem cells. My project was to analyze its effect on microtubule dynamics in these cancer stem cells. This involved the use of various laboratory techniques, imaging technologies, and computing software to visualize and analyze cells.”

Able-Thomas describes the lab atmosphere at VTCRI as “very collaborative, any time I had questions I could always ask,” and credits her academic experience at Hollins for successfully preparing her to thrive in such an intensive program. “The classroom is very open at Hollins, everyone has their own voice and everyone can speak out. Discussions are always happening. I wasn’t intimidated at all when I went to VTCRI.”

Following its completion, Able-Thomas presented her research project at the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Research Symposia. She says her work as a SURF student has convinced her to consider specializing in oncology, and during the January 2018 Short Term she plans to complete an internship shadowing physicians in Gambia, where she grew up. Next summer, she hopes to return again to VTCRI.

“It was so wonderful the way a professor who isn’t even in the sciences at Hollins reached out to me with this opportunity,” she says. “It’s a great example of how professors interact here. I’m extremely grateful.”

 

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NIH Summer Research Teaches Sunny Greene ’19 Failure’s Value

 

“These are the days of miracle and wonder,” Paul Simon’s 1986 song, “The Boy in the Bubble,” proclaims, and more than 30 years later, those words continue to resonate. Constant breakthroughs in medical research and treatment, for example, offer many the confidence that healthcare professionals can recognize and effectively address the vast majority of maladies and disorders.

Yet, despite the rapid pace of medical progress, there remain a remarkable number of people who suffer from illnesses that cannot be identified or remedied. As a result, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, created the Undiagnosed Diseases Program (UDP) in 2008. Today, the UDP welcomes more than 100 new pediatric and adult patients each year from across the nation and around the world whose afflictions are a mystery to the medical community.

“Ultimately, the UDP offers patients the hope of a diagnosis and the possibility of therapeutic strategies,” the program’s website states. “In return, patients provide UDP researchers the opportunity to gain new insights about genetic and biochemical mechanisms of disease and insights into normal cell biology, biochemistry and physiology.”

This summer, Hollins biology major Sunny Greene ’19 was part of a UDP research team. She competed with over 10,000 national and international applicants to earn one of only 1,300 12-week student positions within the NIH Intramural Research Program, the world’s largest biomedical research institution.

“I worked on a rare genetic disorder called Chediak-Higashi Disease (CHD), of which there are roughly only 300 cases known worldwide,” Greene explains. “The classical CHD case affects children and is characterized by partial albinism, easy bruising, and prolonged bleeding and clotting issues, which can be dangerous. Children with CHD also have immune deficiencies that make them prone to recurrent infections, and while a bone marrow transplant can help boost the immune system, the procedure is effective only temporarily. The disease can accelerate and be fatal.

“The atypical CHD case occurs in early adulthood. Adults with CHD don’t face the rate of infection that children do, but they are more likely to experience neurological symptoms similar to Parkinson’s. We don’t know why that is.”

To learn more, the scientists with whom Greene studied CHD are focusing on the LYST gene. “We don’t know what this gene does, that’s what we’re trying to figure out, but we know when this gene mutates it causes CHD. To truly solve this disease and do more than treat its symptoms, you have to understand the pathogenesis of the disease, and to that end we’re comparing the mutations of the LYST gene for classical and atypical patients.”

Greene calls the UDP lab atmosphere “open, welcoming, and wonderful. You have a supervisor and of course they are going to tell you what to do, but communication is a two-way street. You’re encouraged to brainstorm and collaborate and help one another. It’s an incredible community for learning.”

Sunny Greene '10
Biology major Sunny Greene ’19 investigated a rare genetic disorder at the National Institutes of Health.

Because of her time at NIH, Greene says she is convinced she can pursue both her passions in the medical field. “I enjoy the clinical side and I love the research side and I kind of want to marry the two together,” she explains. “Both are important to me because I want to see who I’m helping.”

After graduating from Hollins, Greene is looking at enrolling in a combined M.D./Ph.D. program where she is able to work on her doctorate while attending medical school. Such programs are very selective – Greene cites one in particular that admits just 13 students from over 800 applicants – but she says NIH has given her valuable credentials and crucial preparation.

“What M.D./Ph.D. programs look for is research experience and how you handle the failure that comes with that experience. I’ve never been at a place like NIH that is so successful and yet talks so much about failure, the certainty of it as a researcher, and how you react to it. Are you going to get frustrated and throw in the towel, or are you going to be resilient, persistent, and keep going? The schools I’m considering all want to see how you fail because that is guaranteed, and NIH sees failure as a launching pad to success.”

Greene plans to take two years after she graduates to conduct research “and have this opportunity to fail and succeed.” In the meantime, she plans to build upon the foundation of research she’s established as a Hollins undergraduate. “The biology department faculty is amazing and they have been so supportive of me in growing my curiosity, not just in the biomedical field but also in ecology, zoology, and marine biology. For example, I have gone with [Professors Renee Godard and Morgan Wilson] to St. John in the Virgin Islands during J-term to research marine biodiversity. I’ve definitely become invested in it.”

Greene will spend Spring Term 2018 studying abroad in Ireland at the University of Limerick.

“The Dana Science Building, and all of Hollins, is its own community that is supportive and provides a framework for the future.”

 

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Elaine Metz ’19 Gains Career Focus Via VT Partnership

“Tree of heaven” conjures images of a magnificent plant species reaching toward the sky as the centerpiece of a thriving, bucolic landscape. But, tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is one of the most deceptive names in all of nature.  In reality, the tree is an invasive ecological nuisance, displacing a wide range of other trees and plants and wreaking havoc among both agricultural and natural environments across the United States.

One of the researchers who studied the tree of heaven in recent months is Elaine Metz ’19, who was among the first Hollins University students to take advantage of a new partnership between Hollins and the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech. The affiliation offers undergraduate students at Hollins summer research experience in Virginia Tech labs and field study locations. As Vice President for Academic Affairs Trish Hammer notes, “Working with Virginia Tech in this way allows for extraordinary research and mentoring opportunities for our students in a broad range of interdisciplinary fields.”

A biology major from Staunton, Virginia, Metz spent ten weeks working in Virginia Tech’s forest entomology lab investigating an organic way to combat the tree of heaven. “A naturally occurring fungus here in Virginia appears to offer an effective way to attack the tree,” she explains. One of the benefits of such a fungus is “it’s not like a pesticide. You can insert it into the ecosystem and let it go wild.”

Metz studied the fungus in six different plots. Three are located in Virginia’s Piedmont region and three are in the more mountainous region of the state.

Elaine Metz '19
Junior biology major Elaine Metz conducted research through Virginia Tech’s Global Change Center from May through July. 

“It’s definitely a long-term project, but hopefully by the end we may be able to use that fungus as a control throughout the entire continental United States.”

Metz worked closely on the project with Virginia Tech graduate student Rachel Brooks, “who taught me a ton about graduate school and how I need to prepare. I liked having a single project that I could focus on and to which I could really devote myself. I think that bodes well for graduate school for me because I’m thinking that’s what it’s going to be like, focusing on a single thing for a couple of years, fleshing it out, and working with it in-depth.”

Metz believes this kind of experience balances “the broader education that you receive as an undergraduate.”

In addition to her work with the tree of heaven, Metz took part in a variety of professional development activities at Virginia Tech, including writing personal statements, presenting research, and touring other labs and research facilities.

“This has helped me think of my career in a more tangible way. It has always been in my mind that I wanted to do scientific research, and this made me realize this is something I could do as a job and enjoy it.” Metz says one the most important lessons she learned was that she could avail herself of several different options to achieve her goals. For example, “if I don’t want to go straight from Hollins into graduate school, I could potentially go out for six months to a year and study with different professors. I’d get to travel, too – a lot of lab work spaces are in interesting places in the biological sciences. I could understand more about what I might want to do with my career before I go to grad school, which is really a great opportunity for me. I’m not exactly sure what I want to do, but because of this experience I know where I might be able to go. I have more of an idea and a purpose than I would have had if I had not participated in this program.”

Her ten weeks at Virginia Tech complement what Metz has gained from her first two years at Hollins. “Because of its liberal arts environment, Hollins allows me to explore in a lot of different ways, and that exploration doesn’t hinder my ability to get a degree. I’m a biology major, but I’m taking Roman history and Spanish translation – not at all in my field, but I’m taking those courses because I can. Having a diversity of opportunity at Hollins has really made it special for me, so it’s a really good thing to get that aspect here and at Tech get specificity and the ability to go in deep.”

This academic year, Metz’s educational journeys will take her beyond the Hollins campus, Virginia Tech’s labs and field plots, and even Virginia itself: Through the School for Field Studies, she will be spending Spring Term 2018 in Peru. “I’ll be spending a lot of time in the jungle and cloud forests and experiencing a lot of different and unique ecosystems.”

 

Photo Credit: Cassandra Hockman, Global Change Center at Virginia Tech

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Hollins, Va. Tech Partner to Grow Student Research Opportunities

Hollins University and the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech have signed a memorandum of understanding to offer undergraduate students at Hollins summer research experience in Virginia Tech labs.

Hollins students will participate in a research project as part of the Fralin Life Science Institute’s ten-week Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) Program. Qualified students receive housing and a stipend from Hollins, and Virginia Tech is providing research resources and infrastructure, including lab space, equipment, and supplies.

“Working with Virginia Tech in this way allows for extraordinary research and mentoring opportunities for our students in a broad range of interdisciplinary fields,” said Trish Hammer, vice president for academic affairs at Hollins

William Hopkins, a professor of fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment and director of the Global Change Center, stressed the uniqueness of the partnership. “It has the dual goals of providing undergraduate research opportunities while simultaneously recruiting these same undergraduates to Virginia Tech for graduate school. One of the most important factors leading to a student’s success in graduate school is an effective mentor-mentee relationship. This partnership allows both the mentee and mentor to assess whether they are a good match before fully committing to a longer-term professional endeavor.”

Among the key components of the partnership, Hollins and Virginia Tech are:

  • Collaborating on recognizing possible pairings between Virginia Tech mentors and Hollins undergraduates according to the students’ research interests.
  • Overseeing these associations and research initiatives.
  • Offering graduate school recruitment support as promising relationships are identified.

“We expect the partnership will grow in the coming years and certainly strengthen both the undergraduate programs at Hollins and the graduate programs at Virginia Tech,” said Hammer.

Shannen Kelly ’19, who is a double major in environmental science and Spanish, and biology major Elaine Metz ’19 are the first two Hollins students taking part in the program this summer. Read about their research experiences here.

 

Photo:  From left – Keri Swaby, coordinator, Virginia Tech Office of Undergraduate Research; Janet Webster, associate director, Fralin Life Science Institute; Nancy Gray, recently retired president, Hollins University; William Hopkins, professor and director, Global Change Center at Virginia Tech; Trish Hammer, vice president for academic affairs, Hollins University; and John McDowell, professor and associate scientific director, Fralin Life Science Institute.

 


Student Lands Fellowship at World-Renowned Marine Research Organization

A Hollins junior will be spending her summer with a global leader in ocean research, exploration, and education.

Lan Nguyen ’18 is one of approximately 20 to 30 college and university students from around the world who have been awarded a 12-week summer research fellowship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts.

“I applied to about 10 different summer fellowships and internships and this is the one that best matches my interests,” said Nguyen, who hails from Vietnam and is double majoring in environmental science and economics.

Nguyen will be assigned to WHOI’s Marine Policy Center, which performs social scientific research that combines economics, policy analysis, and law with the institution’s basic exploration of ocean sciences.

“I’ll be working with a researcher to identify the benefits of marine resources and address marine issues in Massachusetts and other coastal areas,” she explained. “I’ll learn about methodology in environmental economics research, which is what I want to do in the future. It will be really helpful to me to get that experience and connect to researchers in the field.” After graduating from Hollins, Nguyen plans to pursue a doctorate in environmental economics and added that the fellowship provides “an amazing opportunity” to build up her Ph.D. program applications.

When she enrolled at Hollins, Nguyen was already thinking about combining environmental science and economics. She was referred to Associate Professor of Economics Pablo Hernandez, who specializes in environmental economics and has served as her academic advisor since her first year. “He helped me to find projects that would allow me to identify my research interests. He also offered suggestions on Short Term and summer opportunities and how to best prepare my applications to internships and fellowships. I wouldn’t have had access to that level of advice at a big university where professors have a lot of advisees and don’t have the extra time to spend with students the way Professor Hernandez and others at Hollins do.”

Nguyen also credits Professor of Biology Renee Godard and Associate Professor of Mathematics Julie Clark for bolstering her research skills in environmental science and statistics, respectively. “Incredible” is the word she uses to describe the three faculty members who have actively supported her.

This will be the second consecutive year in which Nguyen has participated in a prestigious summer program. In 2016, she completed an eight-week residence internship at the American Institute for Economic Research. In addition, during the fall of 2015, she worked with the School for Field Studies’ Center for Mekong Studies in Cambodia and subsequently received the organization’s Distinguished Student Researcher Award.

“Hollins students are able to get research experience even during their first and sophomore years,” Nguyen said. “That really helps us to secure other opportunities such as Woods Hole.”

 

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Hollins Junior Selected for Prestigious Fellowship in Brain Research

This summer, Gabrielle Lewis ’18 will move one step closer to realizing her dream of becoming a physician.

The Roanoke resident has been selected to receive a neuroSURF Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship by the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI) in Roanoke. The ten-week program runs from May 22 – July 28 and provides hands-on research experiences in one of VTCRI’s state-of-the-art neurobiology labs. At the end of the program, she and other fellows will deliver presentations based on their investigative work at the annual Virginia Tech Summer Research Symposium.

“The applicant pool for these fellow positions was extremely qualified and deep,” said Michael Fox, director of the VTCRI neuroSURF program.

Lewis is on the pre-med track at Hollins, double-majoring in biology and biochemistry. After graduating from Virginia Western Community College with an associate’s degree, she chose Hollins over an esteemed but much larger state university to complete her undergraduate education. “I went to a small high school and didn’t know if I wanted a small college,” she explained. “But after experiencing large classes in community college I realized that I liked the small classroom and the connection I would get with professors.”

Another deciding factor for Lewis in selecting Hollins was the university’s Batten Leadership Institute. “I learned about it during my tours here and I loved it. It was really important to me that I pursue Batten because I want to be a physician and that requires having strong leadership skills.”

As someone “more introverted than extroverted,” Lewis said she went into the program knowing that she wanted to change things about herself. She understood that she needed to build her self-confidence “and my relationship with my own authority so that I could speak up and feel validated in what I was saying. Batten has changed my entire perspective of my leadership role. I always thought that being a leader meant being in front of the group and loud. Abrina [Schnurman-Crook, executive director of the Batten Leadership Institute] has helped show me that sometimes it’s the person in the back pushing people forward that’s the strongest leader.”

Along with exploring team dynamics and organizational culture, Lewis said, “I’ve learned that leadership is really about the connection you make with people and how you can unite them in working towards a common goal. And Batten has provided me with a lot of opportunities and insights that a lot of people have to spend years and years in a profession to get.”

During her neuroSURF fellowship, Lewis will be doing translational neurobiology research (“why and how the brain works the way it does”) with a possible focus on glioblastoma (a malignant, aggressive tumor that affects the brain or spine) or brain cancer. She said she is going to go into medicine with an open mind, “but my heart lies with pediatric oncology.” After graduation next year she hopes to attend an M.D./Ph.D. program at either Georgetown, Ohio State, the University of Virginia, or Wake Forest.

In the meantime, Lewis is busy keeping up with a rigorous schedule, both academically and away from campus. She maintains a 3.95 GPA and still finds time to work as the youth sports coordinator at the Roanoke YMCA and serve as an EMT with a local rescue squad. She’s also preparing to take her Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) this summer.

“I’ve always been very organized and had good time management skills,” she explained, “and Batten has definitely helped me to prioritize things in my life.”

 

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Hollins Student Conference Winners Announced

Congratulations to this year’s winners at the annual Hollins Student Conference, held April 30 in Moody Student Center.

Sponsored by the President’s Office, the conference spotlights students’ scholarly and creative endeavors through a variety of podium presentations, poster displays, and performances from across the disciplines.

“The conference reflects our goal of preparing our students for a life of educational and professional development,” said Associate Professor of Communication Studies Jill Weber, who each year coordinates the event with Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Patty O’Toole.

Awards for first, second, and third place were presented by the judges to the following students:

Green and Gold (First Place)

Madi Hurley ’17: “Horses in Motion: Paintings and Drawings of the Mechanics of Equine Locomotion”

Rory Keeley ’17: “Statistical Dimension Analysis of Structural Permutations in British Medieval Monastic Properties”

Emili McPhail ’18: “Contemporary Women’s Travel Blogs and Millennial Identity”

 

Green (Second Place)

Dani Raymond ’18: “Hauntings at Hollins: The Social Impact of Ghost Lore and Legends at Hollins University”

Abigail Sease ’16: “Anxiety of the Unknown in Art: Xu Bing’s A Book from the Sky

Elizabeth Trout ’17: “American Stories: The Use of Personal and Familial Narratives in State of the Union Addresses”

 

Gold (Third Place)

Cici Earl ’18: “South Korean Perceptions of Black People”

Whitney McWilliams ’19: “When Speaking of the South and Her Children”

Mandy Moore ’16: “Howell and Lake”

 

 


Conference Celebrates Undergraduate Work

Hollins is showcasing students’ scholarly and creative endeavors at the annual Hollins Student Conference on Saturday, April 30, from 1 – 5:15 p.m. in Moody Student Center.

Sponsored by the President’s Office, the conference features a variety of podium presentations, poster presentations, and performances from across the disciplines. Awards are given for the top presentations and performances.

“The conference reflects our goal of preparing our students for a life of educational and professional development,” said Associate Professor of Communication Studies Jill Weber, who each year coordinates the event with Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Patty O’Toole.

All Hollins undergraduate students are invited to submit an abstract of sound scholarly or creative work that has been completed under the guidance of a current faculty or staff member.

During the conference, students will present during three separate sessions:

  • Session 1 (1:30 – 2:20 p.m.)
    Exploring Ideas: Hollins 102 Honors Program Projects
    Exploring Identity and Sexuality
  • Session 2 (2:30 – 3:20 p.m.)
    Exploring Modes of Expression – Performances
    Exploring Politics and the Political
    Exploring Women in History
  • Session 3 (3:30 – 4:20 p.m.)
    Exploring Questions in Science – Poster Presentations
    Exploring Art and Architecture
    Exploring Sustainability and the Myths that Sustain

This year’s conference schedule and a complete list of the event’s 29 student presentations is available here.


Hollins Sophomore Earns Prestigious Summer Residence Internship in Economics

Lan Nguyen ’18 has been awarded an eight-week Summer 2016 Residence Internship at the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) in Massachusetts.

Nguyen, who is double-majoring in economics and environmental science, was selected from a highly competitive pool of qualified candidates. Her internship will take place June 20 – August 12.

Founded in 1933, AIER is a widely recognized independent source of economic information, stemming from its proprietary research and publications. The institute’s internship program provides highly accomplished high school and college students with an introduction to economic research. Students work closely with AIER research fellows, which enhances their understanding of economic concepts, theories, and real-world applications.


Sophomore Receives Distinguished Student Researcher Award

The School for Field Studies (SFS) has recognized Lan Nguyen ’18 with its Distinguished Student Researcher Award, honoring the work she completed at the SFS Center for Mekong Studies in Cambodia during the fall of 2015.

Each semester, SFS faculty nominate one student from their Center who has demonstrated exceptional skill and care in contributing to the Center’s research agenda, as evidenced by their Directed Research paper, oral presentations, and approach to the research project.

“The award recognizes not only excellence and diligence in research, but also teamwork and leadership shown during the semester,” said SFS Dean of Academic Programs Mark Seifert. “Of those nominated students, only a few are selected to receive the Distinguished Student Researcher Award.”

Seifert noted that Nguyen’s Directed Research paper, “Morphology and niche partitioning of fish assemblage in the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve – a case study in Prek Toal core area,” “provides a sound foundation for future research at the SFS Center for Mekong Studies.”

In her nomination, SFS Research Advisor Chouly Ou stated that the Hollins sophomore was “passionate about [her] research topic and [was] proactive, diligent, and efficient…[and] exhibited strong leadership skills, particularly in the area of cultural and community engagement.”

With the award, the double-major in environmental science and economics is also eligible for a small stipend to help offset costs incurred if she presents her research at a conference this next academic year.

Nguyen is the second Hollins student to be honored with the Distinguished Student Researcher Award in the past six months. Kayla Deur ’16 was recognized last September for the research she conducted during the spring of 2015 at the Center for Mekong Studies.

SFS creates transformative study abroad experiences through field-based learning and research. Its educational programs explore the human and ecological dimensions of the complex environmental problems faced by its local partners, contributing to sustainable solutions in the places where people live and work. The SFS community is part of a growing network of individuals and institutions committed to environmental stewardship.