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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Through Hollins-VT Affiliation, Shannen Kelly ’19 Thrives as Scientist

Launching your summer research project by digging ten-inch-deep ditches for eight hours in a hot, humid, poison ivy-infested forest doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of a good time. But for Shannen Kelly ’19, it meant that one of her most anticipated and ultimately gratifying experiences of her academic career was under way.

“Not necessarily fun, but at the end I walked away thinking it was a great day,” Kelly recalls. “It was a terrific team building activity and your spirits stay high when you are working with people who are interested and invested in what you are doing, and are dedicated to helping you achieve what you’re trying to find.”

Kelly, a double major in environmental science and Spanish, is one of two Hollins students who this summer helped pioneer a new partnership between the university and the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech. The affiliation offers undergraduate students from Hollins the opportunity to gain summer research experience at Virginia Tech in both the lab and in the field as part of the Fralin Life Science Institute’s ten-week Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) Program.

In collaboration with Ph.D. candidate Becky Fletcher, Kelly measured the growth rate, based on differential weather conditions, of an invasive weed called Johnson grass.  It’s found throughout the United States and has had considerable destructive impact on agriculture.

In another experiment, Kelly explains, “I did my own lab-based study of five populations of Johnson grass from five different states  – Georgia, New Mexico, New York, Texas, and Virginia – and exposed them to different light intensities or different carbon dioxide concentrations to see how the populations and their progressions differ based on latitude and climate or origin.”

Kelly notes that the research will continue over time. “This was sort of a preliminary ‘what if’ project. The long-term goal would be to create genetic profiles of each population so that we can trace the differences in photosynthetic capacity, dark respiration rates, or even carbon assimilation rates.”

Shannen Kelly '19
Hollins junior Shannen Kelly (right) and Ph.D. student Becky Fletcher conduct field research at Blacksburg’s Kentland Farm.

The junior from Tolland, Connecticut, spent much of her time at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm in Blacksburg and discovered “that I love field work. It was a really unique experience learning science hands-on. When we were out in the field we really had to be creative because if a problem arose you quickly had to adapt to solving it. There was a lot of perseverance involved; Becky and I would sometimes spend three or four days trying to flesh out a problem. You can’t give up – you have to push through it.

“I also liked the team aspect of research. I worked in a lab with three or four other people at any given time and a great community that was built there. If someone had a question about their research they would just swivel their chair around and ask everyone else in the lab. It promoted a lot of scientific conversation.”

One of the biggest challenges Kelly took on was teaching herself to operate a complex piece of scientific equipment. “No one in my lab really knew how to use it, and only one professor on the entire campus ever worked with it on a regular basis,” Kelly recalls. “Becky however had some experience with its operation and was able to help me in the early stages of learning, which was vital. Still, it was something you just had to work with yourself to grasp how it functioned.”  Kelly says she relied on manuals to help her troubleshoot how to construct light response and carbon response curves, familiarize herself with the “hows” behind the machine’s technical aspects, and ensure the equipment’s consistency since she and her team encountered a lot of machine-based control errors.

Her time at Virginia Tech, Kelly believes, “definitely opened my eyes to the types of opportunities I have and specifically made me very interested in research. It’s pinpointed where my interests lie right now – I’m interested in plant physiology and the ecological impact of invasive species. Most importantly, it made me interested in going to grad school once I graduate from Hollins.”

Kelly also sees what she’s gained at Hollins as blending perfectly with the teaching environment at Virginia Tech. “I feel like Hollins gives you the empowerment and Tech gives you the resources and technical competencies. I said all summer, I’m so glad I got to have both experiences because now I have my toes in both waters. Hollins is very beneficial to the individual education of a student – I can learn a lot in class. And then Tech was an incredible experience because I got to see what a research institute does. I’ve grown so much not only as a student but also as a researcher and scientist.

“I heard Tech was pleased with [Elaine Metz ’19, the other Hollins student involved in summer research at the Global Change Center] and me because most of the students who go into this program are from technical universities. We were among the few students from liberal arts backgrounds to take part. I think they were pleasantly surprised at how well-rounded we were, and that was because of Hollins.”

Kelly is now looking forward to spending Spring Term 2018 at Spain’s University of Granada, where she hopes to continue growing her skills in both her majors. “Granada is very diverse in terms of ecology and landscape and one of the leading areas of the world for environmental research.”

 

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.

 


Hollins Alumna and Celebrated Neuroscientist Elected to National Academy of Sciences

In acknowledgment of her distinguished and continuing achievements in original research, Mary Elizabeth “Mary Beth” Hatten ’71 has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

Hatten is the Frederick P. Rose Professor in the Laboratory of Developmental Neurobiology at The Rockefeller University in New York City. After completing her Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry at Hollins, she earned a Ph.D. in biochemical sciences from Princeton University and did her postdoctoral research in neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. She subsequently served with the New York University School of Medicine and the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University.

In 1992, Hatten joined Rockefeller and was appointed the university’s first female full professor and the first female to lead a research laboratory there. Her work has implications for conditions that are partially due to developmental abnormalities in the brain, such as learning disabilities, childhood epilepsy, schizophrenia, and autism. Her work on cerebellar development may one day inform research on treatments for childhood cancers.

The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience Investigator Award, the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award, and a Faculty Award for Women Scientists and Engineers from the National Science Foundation are among Hatten’s many accolades. In 2015 she was presented the prestigious Max Cowan Award, which honors a neuroscientist for outstanding work in developmental neuroscience. She is a recipient of the Hollins Distinguished Alumnae Award.

Hatten will be the featured speaker at Hollins’ 175th commencement exercises on Sunday, May 21.

The NAS is a private, nonprofit institution that was established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership and – with the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine – provides science, engineering, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

 

 

 

 

 


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 Alumna and Renowned Neuroscientist to Speak on Campus and at VTCRI

Mary Beth Hatten ’71, the Frederick P. Rose Professor in the Laboratory of Developmental Neurobiology at The Rockefeller University, is returning to Hollins and the Roanoke area to take part in three special events on April 13 and 14.

Hatten is a past recipient of the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience Investigator Award, the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award, and a Faculty Award for Women Scientists and Engineers from the National Science Foundation. In 2015 she received the prestigious Max Cowan Award, which honors a neuroscientist for outstanding work in developmental neuroscience.

On Wednesday, April 13, Hatten will host a casual conversation with Hollins students from 3:30 – 4:30 p.m. in the Chemistry Reading Room (Dana 225). At 4:30 p.m., she will present “Mechanisms of Brain Development: Implications for Autism and Other Neurodevelopmental Disorders.” The lecture is free and open to the campus community and general public.

The Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI) is featuring Hatten as part of its Distinguished Public Lecture Series on Thursday, April 14. She will discuss “Mechanisms of Cerebellar Development: Migration, Circuit Formation, and Synaptic Plasticity” beginning at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public.

“VTCRI is bringing some of the world’s leading medical researchers and scientific thought leaders to Roanoke as part of our mission to engage the community in the excitement and promise of scientific research,” VTCRI Executive Director Michael Friedlander explained on the institute’s website. “We’re absolutely delighted to be able to share the insights of such highly sought-after experts in such a range of fascinating topics.”

Photo: Mary Beth Hatten ’71 received the Max Cowan Award last fall for her work in developmental neuroscience. 


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.


Hollins Alumna Honored for Achievement in Neuroscience

Mary Beth Hatten, a member of Hollins’ class of 1971, is the recipient of the prestigious Max Cowan Award for 2015.

Presented by the Journal of Comparative Neurology and Wiley Publishers in conjunction with The Cajal Club, the Cowan Award is given in odd-numbered years to a neuroscientist for outstanding work in developmental neuroscience.

Hatten is the Frederick P. Rose Professor in the Laboratory of Developmental Neurobiology at The Rockefeller University in New York City. After completing her Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry at Hollins, she earned a Ph.D. in biochemical sciences from Princeton University in 1975 and went on to do her postdoctoral research in neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. She was on the New York University School of Medicine faculty from 1978 to 1987 and then at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. She came to Rockefeller in 1992 and was named the Frederick P. Rose Professor in 2000. In 2005, Hatten was Wiersma Visiting Professor of Neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology.

In 1991, Hatten received the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience Investigator Award, the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award, and a Faculty Award for Women Scientists and Engineers from the National Science Foundation. Her other honors include the Irma T. Hirschl Fund Career Scientist Award (1980); the Pew Neuroscience Award (1988); and the Weil Award from the American Association of Neuropathologists (1996). She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Hatten was officially presented the Cowan Award during the Cajal Club Social on October 18 in Chicago. The club was founded in 1947 to provide an opportunity for neuroscientists with special interests in the structure and function of the nervous system to associate; contribute to the welfare of neuroanatomy and neuroatomists; and revere the founder of modern neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

 

 


Hollins Welcomes $6.5 Million Pledge to Support Science, Theatre, and Playwriting Programs

Hollins University has received a financial commitment of $6.5 million from Mr. and Mrs. James McDonnell III to fund renovations to the university’s Dana Science Building and Hollins Theatre, and expand the number of faculty in the theatre and playwriting programs.

Pledge payments will begin in fiscal year 2015-16.

Of the total gift commitment, $4 million is earmarked to upgrade classroom furniture, research equipment, projector systems, teaching laboratories, and technology in Dana, which is home to Hollins’ biology, chemistry, mathematics/statistics, physics, and psychology departments.

“This investment gives our outstanding faculty the tools they need to continue facilitating the serious study of the sciences in a comfortable and inviting environment,” said Hollins President Nancy Gray. “We are proud of our record of preparing women for graduate school and careers in this field. These funds help make certain we can offer quality education in the sciences for many years to come.”

The remaining $2.5 million is allocated to endow a faculty chair in the theatre program ($1,000,000); endow visiting professional artist positions in the theatre program and the graduate Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University ($600,000 and $500,000, respectively); and to make capital improvements to the Hollins Theatre facility ($400,000). The latter includes ADA compliance for the theatre’s annex and the installation of a new wooden floor for rehearsal space.

“The Hollins Theatre is already a jewel in the crown of the university and is poised to become a highly competitive player in the world of academic theatres,” Gray explained. “This funding will ensure our position and continued success for our undergraduate and graduate programs.”

Gray added that the Playwright’s Lab’s first visiting artist will be Bob Moss, whom she described as “a giant in American theatre. He has over 50 years of directing experience and founded Playwrights Horizons, which produced over 150 new plays during his tenure. He has served as the artistic director of Edward Albee’s Playwrights’ Unit and has served on the faculty of Syracuse University and Ithaca College. A theatre in New York was recently named in his honor.”

Gray said that in addition to teaching and directing in the Playwright’s Lab, Moss would introduce Hollins students to top literary managers and facilitate student play readings in New York.

The McDonnells’ gift commitment continues their legacy of generosity to Hollins. In 2009, they pledged $3 million to transform and update the theatre space. Three years later, the Hollins Theatre was dedicated in their honor.