Undergraduate researchers present findings on a national stage

In early November 2014, at a prestigious national research conference, Virginia Commonwealth University junior Michael Kiflezghi presented his research into the molecular biology of aging. Kiflezghi’s appearance is just one of the latest in a string of accolades earned by VCU students taking part in a pair of programs that support aspiring scientists from underrepresented groups.

"My primary research interest is the molecular biology of how we age. What's going on at the cellular and molecular level that leads to aging? More specifically, I'm interested in the effect of dietary control like caloric restriction on aging and the gut microbiome's role," said Kiflezghi, who presented his paper, "Microfluidic Devices for the Study of Dietary Influences on Life History Traits in Caenorhabditis elegans," at the Gerontological Society of America's 67th Annual Scientific Meeting in Washington, D.C.

"In laymen's terms, I was developing microenvironments made of a special breathable plastic and glass that would allow for very in-depth studies on the nematode C. elegans — think microscopic worm," said Kiflezghi, who is pursuing a dual degree in information systems at the School of Business and bioinformatics in VCU Life Sciences.

Kiflezghi is among a group of VCU students participating in National Institutes of Health-funded undergraduate research training programs at VCU that support students who are historically underrepresented in the biomedical sciences.

Michael Kiflezghi
Michael Kiflezghi

The research training programs, which are part of the VCU Center on Health Disparities, are the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity Scholars Program and Minority Access to Research Careers.

As part of the IMSD program, participants have the opportunity to work with faculty mentors who are leaders in the fields of neuroscience, cancer biology, metabolic diseases, allergy and immunology, microbial pathogenesis, drug addiction or abuse, molecular genetics and more. The scholars, who are admitted as early as the end of their freshman year, also enroll in a series of courses and workshops on biomedical science, preparing for the Graduate Record Examination and career development.

The MARC program specifically targets academically talented VCU juniors and seniors from underrepresented groups who are interested in biomedical research careers. Each participant is paired with a faculty mentor, works in research laboratories and attends courses and workshops that prepare them for research careers.

Both programs provide the scholars with the chance to conduct research and present their findings at local, regional and national research meetings.

This fall, Kiflezghi was one of three scholars who presented their work at national research conferences.

"It's very rare for undergrads to present their work at national discipline-specific meetings," said Sarah Golding, Ph.D., an instructor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and associate director of undergraduate research training for the Center on Health Disparities. "I've been involved in this research training program for four years now. This is the first time we've had three. Last year, two people presented. And the year before that, there was one person. It's been a snowballing effect."

Brittany Martinez, a senior biomedical engineering student in the School of Engineering, presented her research at the national Annual Meeting of the American Biomedical Engineering Society in San Antonio, Texas, in October.

"It was the most humbling experience in my research career," she said. "I absorbed so much knowledge, and I came back and created new experiments to try just based on what I heard at the conference. I truly got the experience of a lifetime."

The best part of the conference, Martinez said, was when a third-year Ph.D. student from Clemson University told her that her poster was the highlight of the conference.

"She told me that I had made an impact on her view of her own experiments that she would go back and try to incorporate my reasoning into her design," she said. "I had never been given such a compliment about my science before. I knew I was there to learn from other researchers, but I never thought someone would learn something from mine."

I knew I was there to learn from other researchers, but I never thought someone would learn something from mine.

Martinez's research looks at glucose's effect in the tumor microenvironment of cultured cells, she said.

"I work with healthy breast epithelial cells and malignant breast epithelial cells in various experiments to see how too much or too little glucose affects how the cells change their phenotype to healthy cells to cancerous cells in a process known as epithelial to mesenchymal transition," she said.

Martinez added she is currently applying to Ph.D. programs and hopes to conduct interdisciplinary research into Type 1 diabetes.

"As a Type 1 diabetic, I want to create biomaterials, devices and treatments to help eradicate this disease," she said. "I want to work in industry or the government to help with research in this field."

In addition to the three students who presented their research at national research conferences, 19 VCU students participating in the Center on Health Disparities programs attended this fall's Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in San Antonio in November. Twelve of the students gave poster presentations and three delivered oral presentations.

"It's an initiative by the NIH to [encourage] professionalism and to give the students early exposure to science training," Golding said.

John Ryan, Ph.D., a biology professor who is co-principal investigator on the IMSD grant and the principal investigator for the MARC program grant, said VCU is among a small number of universities to have both IMSD and MARC grants funded by the NIH.

"This is an indication of not just how vibrant the research environment is here, but also of how important and talented our undergraduate researchers are," he said. "By having these programs here, we are able to mentor the next generation of scientists in a way that also promotes diversity in these important fields."


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