Undergraduate Apprenticeships Introduce Students to Professional Research

Posted: March 27, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Professor Susan Bachus and Allison Slusser
Professor Susan Bachus and student Allison Slusser examine images of rats’ brains for a project they are working on together in the Undergraduate Apprenticeship Program.

By Christopher Anzalone

Many students are in graduate school before they are able to undertake serious, substantive research in their chosen fields of study. However, through the Undergraduate Apprenticeship Program, George Mason’s Center for Teaching Excellence allows undergraduate students to work closely with faculty members on specific, cutting-edge research projects.

Seniors Stephen Elmore and Cynthia Tselepis, earth science majors, were undergraduate apprentices with Mark Krekeler, assistant professor of environmental science and policy. They assisted him in the lab with research largely related to the testing of inexpensive methods of removing pollutants from the environment, and their projects were presented in part at an annual Geological Society of America meeting.

As a result of the apprenticeship, the two joined Krekeler in forming a company – Mineral Sciences, LLC – that is licensing in technologies they co-invented with Krekeler during their research experiences. The technologies are designed to protect human health and the environment by countering terrorist attacks through the application of novel nanotechnologies.

Through his work with Krekeler, Elmore says he has developed a good knowledge base of instruments and materials used in a clay science lab and has learned about samples preparation and descriptive analysis of material. “At this point, the future looks promising.”

Getting Students Excited about the Sciences

“I’m a firm believer that undergraduates should have some research experience before they graduate,” says Timothy Born, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “I have had quite a few undergraduates work with me in my six years at George Mason, and I have greatly enjoyed the experience,” he says.

“My hope is that anyone who graduates from college has both book knowledge and practical experience. I think the best way to get students excited about chemistry and biochemistry is to get them into the lab working on projects that are important to their faculty advisors.”

Born is working this semester with Minh Nguyen, a senior biochemistry major, on a research project involving the cloning and purification of the enzyme homoserine transsuccinylase from streptococcus pneumoniae.

Minh Nguyen and Assistant Professor Timothy Born working on their research project.

Nguyen’s research project with Born on homoserine transsuccinylase, the enzyme responsible for the biosynthesis of methionine by bacteria, seeks to discover ways to reduce the growth of bacteria and assist in the search for new antibacterial medications.

“Our hope is that if we can find a way to prevent bacterial pathogens from synthesizing methionine, we will be able to stop an infection,” says Born.

“Working in a research lab has helped me to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the biochemistry field,” says Nguyen. “It has given me a great opportunity to become more familiar with a professional working environment as well as the technology used in the lab. I believe this is the best preparation for my future career in biochemistry.”

Dealing with Responsibility

Allison Slusser, a senior psychology and biology double major, became interested in directed independent research after taking Physiological Psychology last spring. Her teacher was Susan Bachus, professor of psychology, who is also a faculty member at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study.

Slusser’s research project involves the potential long-term effects of Ritalin, a commonly prescribed drug used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). By giving standard doses of the drug to adolescent rats, Slusser hopes to be able to analyze them once they reach adulthood and will look for possible behavioral changes and changes in their brain structure.

Bachus and Robert Smith, chair of the Department of Psychology and also a member of Krasnow, have provided Slusser with the background necessary to conduct her study.

“She’s not just working as someone’s assistant, she’s actually doing the study herself,” says Bachus. “Professor Smith and I are acting, in a way, like her assistants, providing her with the training to be able to do this study and to come up with a whole new level of interpretation of what’s going on.”

Slusser sees her research project with Bachus and Smith as invaluable. “In addition to gaining incredible lab experience, I’ve been able to assist in a project that may have a real impact on the treatment of ADHD,” she says. “They’ve afforded me a lot of responsibility in running the project, so I’ve learned so much about the methods and organization behind experimentation. The apprenticeship has really helped me on my path to medical school.”

During the fall, spring and summer semesters, 15 student-faculty pairs from across the academic spectrum, from the lab sciences to the social sciences and humanities, are selected by a committee to participate in the apprenticeship program through a highly competitive application process. Students chosen have a strong academic record, a well-defined realistic project, and faculty support. Applications for summer 2006 are currently being accepted through May 2.

For more information on the Undergraduate Apprenticeship Program, visit the Center for Teaching Excellence’s web site.

Keith Davies and Bach Dinh
Professor Keith Davies is currently working with Faisal Anwar on research related to diazenium diolates, a class of compounds that are widely used as nitric oxide-generating agents in biomedical research studies. Above, he works with student Bach Dinh in the lab.
Creative Services photos

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