They’re young. They’re smart. And their research is already solving global problems.
By Anne Manning | Photograph by Mary Neiberg
Manci Li was a veterinary student in her native China when she first read an American clinical study about prions – mysteriously misfolded proteins associated with diseases of the brain.
Mourning the death of a family friend from Alzheimer’s disease – one of many devastating protein-misfolding diseases – Li became curious and determined to know more. She came to Colorado State University for that reason; it’s a center of prion expertise. Now Li is an award-winning undergraduate researcher in the world-renowned laboratory of University Distinguished Professor Edward Hoover, and she’s making serious headway in the study of prion pathology.
Li’s research contributions are significant in Northern Colorado, which is ground zero for chronic wasting disease, a fatal prion disease that has ravaged mule deer in the West and now infects deer species as far away as Finland and South Korea. At the same time, her lab work helps provide insights into related neurodegenerative diseases that strike people, including Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a variant of chronic wasting disease, and other human illnesses marked by protein misfolding. These include amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
“My life goal is to help understand neurodegenerative diseases,” Li said.
She’s just entering her senior year in biomedical sciences, yet already has earned a Best in Show award during Celebrate Undergraduate Research and Creativity, known as CURC, the University’s largest competition and showcase for rising scholars. Her project described a new technique for diagnosing early-stage chronic wasting disease in deer, even before symptoms emerge.
“We know so little about prion biology that it’s a whole new realm for researchers to discover,” Li said. “The link between neurodegenerative disease and prions is too strong not to dig into. I see the stuff I’m doing here as the beginning of my scientific journey.”
“My life goal is to help understand neurodegenerative diseases,” Li said.
Research is at the heart of Colorado State’s educational mission, and students like Li may be its soul. She is among 5,300 undergraduate researchers on campus, according to the Office for Undergraduate Research and Artistry. That number – about one-fifth of the undergraduate population on campus last fall – has exploded from a decade ago, when an estimated 1,400 undergraduates conducted some form of research. The trend is driven by both students and educators who understand the value of experiential learning at a top-tier research university. Whether these young scholars are contributing to scientific discoveries about infectious disease at a cellular level, scouring dirt at an archaeological dig, or pouring creativity and courage into their artwork, they are the face of CSU’s commitment to tackling the challenges of today and producing the leaders of tomorrow.
Undergraduate researchers bring curiosity, motivation, and determination to labs, field sites, and studios. While they are earning bachelor’s degrees, these student scientists are contributing time and talent to asking the questions and finding the answers that could change the world. In some cases, students go on to become professional researchers; others apply hands-on research experiences to different pursuits.
In the process, they’re learning – about their interests, their responsibilities, and their capacities to contribute. These lessons remarkably enrich classroom teaching, said Mark Brown, director of the Office for Undergraduate Research and Artistry. That’s one reason he and other undergraduate leaders would like to see every student on campus conduct faculty-mentored research.
“There’s a large body of evidence indicating that students involved in faculty-mentored research tend to have higher academic performance and higher rates of retention,” Brown said. “If they are students of color, they have higher persistence in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math,” an important step toward elevated problem-solving with a variety of perspectives and ideas. In survey after survey, he said, employers cite undergraduate research experiences as top predictors of job performance.
Teamwork might be a “soft skill,” yet it’s a firm requirement for graduates – and another competency often developed through research projects.
“The most exciting part of our project was the collaborative nature of it,” said Sterling Krone, an electrical engineering student whose team built a new technology to improve the reliability and durability of existing air-pollution monitors. Their project also earned a Best in Show award at CURC.
Research experiences benefit students – no question. But what’s in it for the University? A lot, said Professor Erica Suchman, a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology.
“Undergraduates are co-authors on many faculty research papers, and they provide value to laboratories by carrying out experiments and helping to generate and analyze data,” Suchman, who leads undergraduate education in her department, said. “The fact that so many students participate in the Celebrate Undergraduate Research and Creativity symposium demonstrates that many faculty provide opportunities for students to participate in research, and their contributions are significant.”
Founded two decades ago, CURC had fewer than 100 participants as recently as 2009. Last spring, more than 600 up-and-coming scholars filled the Lory Student Center ballrooms to present their original projects. This level of committed participation is just one barometer of growth in undergraduate research on campus.
Brown’s office defines research as the design and testing of a new idea, typically under the mentorship of a faculty or staff member. This broad view encompasses work in natural sciences, social sciences, and liberal arts. For a rising biomedical scientist, like Li, it usually means laboratory-based research; for an art student, it might mean developing a new technique for applying acrylic to canvas.
Students get involved through several avenues. Some are recruited, through CSU’s Honors Undergraduate Research Scholars program, for instance. Others pursue opportunities through their advisers, favorite professors, or the Office for Undergraduate Research and Artistry. Still others land part-time research jobs through the University’s Student Employment Services program.
Lena Cuevas, a fourth-year biochemistry student, exemplifies a tried-and-true campus experience: She took a class, loved the subject, asked her professor about the possibility of working in his lab, and pursued her curiosity into a newfound passion. The class was cell biology. The instructor: Santiago Di Pietro, an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; he’s now research adviser for Cuevas.
And she gets fired up by the mere mention of “clathrin-mediated endocytosis.” Endocytosis is the basic nutrient- and hormone-uptake mechanism that spells life or death for our cells. The process goes awry all too often, leading to cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Scientists suspect certain cellular proteins are to blame, but they are not sure which ones. Cuevas wants to know, so she’s toiling in a biochemistry lab to help find out.
“When I think about our lack of knowledge, I get really angry – in a good way. It’s very motivating,” Cuevas said. “Research is the frontier of knowledge, and we’re on the border of it.”
Many students have that keen desire to learn, and individual academic departments are also acting to fulfill it. For instance, Suchman’s department created an Undergraduate Research Fellows Program that pairs standout microbiology students with faculty mentors.
Tyler Thomas-Fenderson is among them. He is majoring in microbiology and is a third-year research fellow paired with Associate Professor Claudia Gentry-Weeks to investigate bacteriophages – “viruses for bacteria,” Thomas-Fenderson explained. The research project he completed last spring showed how bacteriophages can kill antibiotic- resistant strains of Staphylococcus bacteria, potentially offering a new tool in the growing medical fight against antibiotic-resistant infections. Thomas-Fenderson won a Rising Star in STEM award at the 2018 Multicultural Undergraduate Research, Art, and Leadership Symposium, known as MURALS, another springtime showcase that motivates students to complete projects and present findings.
“Research is just really fun, and bacteria are my passion,” Thomas- Fenderson said. “I feel like you have to really be passionate about something in order to focus on it so much.”
Kenyatta Richardson has a passion for dentistry, and that motivated her as a self-starter in research. A second-year student in health and exercise science, Richardson wants to attend dental school and would like to practice culturally informed dentistry in underserved communities. She sought help from the Office for Undergraduate Research and Artistry to devise a research project, then competed in
CURC and MURALS.
Richardson’s project, reflecting her career plans, stemmed from her curiosity about the aesthetics of “pearly whites” in Western culture. She immersed herself in scholarly works describing practices of black-dyed teeth in Japan and the desirability of the diastema, or front tooth gap, in Nigeria. Perhaps most surprising, she found that in 2015, the U.S. was No. 10 in the world for dental health, according to the FDI World Dental Federation. That ranking sparked Richardson’s interest in access to dental care in the United States – her next planned research project.
Some students are not as sure about their career plans, but they know a solid research experience will help. In this category is Fort Collins native Travis Varra. Six years ago, he was living in Seattle, working as a digital audio engineer, and had no thoughts of returning to school. A brush with death from an autoimmune illness reset his life path. Varra moved back to Colorado. While bedridden in recovery, he vowed to do “something with impact.”
At age 34, he is a third-year chemistry major and is the brains behind a research project in fluorescence microscopy, a field of specialized lighting and magnification for visualizing substances. Varra and fellow student Amy Simpson completed a prototype for a total internal reflection fluorescence microscope. It is powerful, capable of imaging particles as small as 200 nanometers in diameter, or a fraction of the width of a human hair; inexpensive, at about $200, or 100 times less than an analogous commercial-grade microscope; and involves an iPhone with LEGO housing – ubiquitous parts. Varra wanted to create a scientifically advanced yet school-friendly prototype. He’s proud of his team’s work on the microscope’s resolution and usability, and presented those advances at CURC in April. He earned High Honors for the project.
“That’s the beauty of chemistry – you hit a wall, you climb over it, you keep going,” said Varra, voicing a life lesson that echoes his experience with illness. “I used to take a lot of stuff for granted. But the more I learn, the better off I know I’ll be.”
Another chemistry major, Sarah Sanders, has entered research in the same field, but by a different path. She is among CSU’s first 10 undergraduates to be selected as Michael Smith Scholars in Chemistry. Students earning the prestigious award receive four years of full tuition, thanks to alumnus Michael Smith, a successful energy entrepreneur. The program’s encouragement and generous support demonstrate the impact of such high-level scholarship programs and have steered Sanders to study the amino acid glycine in the cellular lipid membrane. The research is designed to help illuminate how the body processes medication.
Some student researchers pursue projects indirectly related to their career goals. Take Jack Mentzer. He’s an Honors Undergraduate Research Scholar and wants to be a physician. Yet he’s also a former master gardener with a knack for horticulture and a penchant for genetics. These interests led Mentzer to major in soil and crop sciences and to work on a research project that uses cutting-edge genetic techniques to create new strains of healthier wheat. The protocols he uses in the lab, including the genome editing technology CRISPR/Cas9, are too new to be found in textbooks. That’s exciting for this self-described autodidact who plans to apply his deep knowledge of plant genomics to a career in medicine.
“I think the key for undergraduates is to find the lab you want to work in,” Mentzer said. “Your lab could be doing something not quite aligned with what you want to do, but you get to work for people who push you and motivate you.”
Anthropology major Marie Taylor could say that about her research adviser, Jason LaBelle, associate professor of archaeology. She took his Public Archaeology course, then enrolled in LaBelle’s annual summer Archaeology Field School, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last summer and is a popular crash course in archaeological field methods.
With that seven-week immersion, Taylor found her scientific focus and last spring presented at CURC her analysis of pottery sherds from a prehistoric site excavated on the outskirts of Fort Collins. Her project sparked new ideas about nomadic and settled lifestyles among prehistoric people in the region. Taylor’s story of newfound passion illustrates the reasons Brown and other campus leaders hope to continue expanding opportunities for undergraduate research. He envisions that someday, every single student will obtain such an experience.
“We’re a long way away,” Brown said, “but that’s our long-term goal.”