There’s no stopping research at DMU

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic continued through the summer, so did DMU’s Mentored Student Research Program (MSRP). This summer, 36 DMU students and 29 faculty mentors participated, as did a student from Juan N. Corpas University in Bogota, Columbia, and another from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, who participated virtually.

Students in the MSRP are allowed up to 240 hours to work on a faculty research project. Each student researcher completed an abstract and two- to three-minute video presentations about their research. Project topics included analysis of the adverse effects of the COVID-19 vaccine, sleep apnea, climate effects on mammalian evolution, cardio-renal disease, joint movement measurements, cancer, and estrogen regulation of blood pressure. All students are expected to present at the DMU Research Symposium in December.

Maria Barnes, Ph.D., associate professor of biochemistry and nutrition, right, was among the 29 DMU faculty who worked with students in the Mentored Student Research Program this summer. (DMU photo by Brett T. Roseman)

Jun Dai, Ph.D., M.D., M.Sc., Ph.D., associate professor of public health, and Martin Schmidt, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and nutrition, facilitated a journal club during the MSRP for the first time. It included Dr. Dai giving a presentation on an article titled, “DNA hydroxymethylation combined with carotid plaques as a novel biomarker for coronary atherosclerosis.” She then asked students questions about the article and challenged them to identify aspects of it that were well done or seemed confusing. The topic related to her work that’s being funded by a three-year $488,819 grant she received from the National Institutes of Health on possible links between a specific epigenetic modification of DNA and the occurrence of type 2 diabetes and obesity, diseases that are serious global public health challenges.

Michael Munafo, a second-year student in DMU’s osteopathic medicine program, participated in the journal club because, he says, “I love discussing research methodology with professors; I find the process of honing in on the research question very fun, and getting a chance to do so within the busy medical school curriculum was enjoyable. For me, learning to be more specific in aim and question is almost more of a life skill as much as it is a research skill, so I do take most opportunities to get involved.”

He enjoyed the chance to talk with Dr. Dai, too. “Her experience in research is incredible, and to hear her thought process was insightful,” he says.

Second-year osteopathic medicine student Tanner Wetzel says participating in the journal club allowed him to discuss work in a field he wasn’t familiar with and also learn about aspects of research project design. “I hope to take away a better understanding of how to incorporate literature into my future career as well as how to use the information for the benefit of my patients,” he says.

MSRP students also attended three breakfast presentations by Wayne Wilson, Ph.D., professor and chair of the biochemistry and nutrition department; Lauren Butaric, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy; and Michael Carruthers, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology and immunology, who discussed their research career and projects. Lori Byrd, M.S., research coordinator, facilitated a roundtable discussion on critical appraisal of scientific literature, and Chunfa Jie, Ph.D., a biostatistician in biochemistry and nutrition, facilitated another on how to estimate sample sizes in the practices of biomedical research. 

“When students in the MSRP start their research projects, one of the initial planning tasks is to produce a reasonable sample size for their studies. It is also a required component of the IRB application,” Dr. Jie explains. “In my roundtable discussion, I presented four common scenarios requiring sample size calculations after illustrating the related statistics concepts. Then I demonstrated how to calculate sample size for each scenario, followed by students’ hands-on practices. The students will benefit from the discussion for their MSRP projects as well as future studies.”

Dr. Wilson says that while he enjoys teaching, working with students in his lab allows him to share his research focus, the study of glycogen metabolism and its regulation.

“When I have students in my lab, they’re actually doing what I do. They see us faculty in our natural environment, in our wheelhouse,” he says. “Our students are all really bright, and they come up with ideas. It’s a huge amount of fun.”

MSRP participant Tarana Joshi, a second-year student in DMU’s osteopathic medicine program, worked with Dr. Wilson and Andrew Brittingham, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology to research glycogen metabolism in the parasitic protist, T. vaginalis. They studied enzymes called alpha-glucanotransferases that are largely used to facilitate breakdown of glycogen, but their specific use remains unknown.

“We are continuing this work from the summer into the fall semester because we are just starting to get some answers,” she says. “I honestly could not have asked for a better mentor than Dr. Wilson to work with this summer because he was so careful to explain everything to me, knowing that I’ve never had any experience in a wet lab before, and he made sure that I understood every step of the process. He let me run some experiments on my own once I felt more confident about my skills, but he was always just a phone call away if I needed anything. It was really great getting to hear his thought process throughout our experiments and in that way, I gained a biochemist’s perspective.

“Dr. Brittingham was also a great mentor to work with, and through him, I was able to understand our study from a microbiologist’s perspective as well,” Tarana adds. “The two are very different and yet work so well together, thinking about every angle and covering every base for our projects. Working with them was definitely the highlight of the summer, and I learned so much more than I thought I would have in only the few weeks that I was there.”

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