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Capitol-ization

April 28, 2009


Keta Desai explains her research.

Keta Desai explains her research on the role of mast cells in hypersensitivity to pain. Desai worked on her project for about three years.

Photo: Patrick O'Leary

U undergraduates display their research projects for lawmakers

By Rick Moore

In fiscal year 2008, University of Minnesota faculty brought in $675 million in research awards. What that means is that funding agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health had such trust in the potential of U research that they were willing to take chances to the tune of millions of dollars in support.

But it's not only faculty that drive the University's research. Every year, hundreds of University of Minnesota students are conducting their own research on topics like finding gene therapies for deadly fungal infections, improving child literacy screening, and controlling Eurasian water milfoil.

On April 27, the University brought more than 30 of the year's best undergraduate research projects to the North Corridor of the Minnesota state capitol for a week.

This year's cadre of student researchers includes 2009 Goldwater Scholarship winner Mitch Biermann, a sophomore in the College of Biological Sciences (CBS) who cites early access to an undergraduate research opportunity as a factor that helped him gain the Goldwater award.

The titles of the student research projects are anything but pedestrian; in fact, they often need some significant translation. To wit: "FOXO1-Mediated Androgen Receptor Inactivation in Human Prostate Cancer Cells," the intriguing "Do Lupines Impose Sanctions on Cheating Rhizobia?," and "Examining the Role of Mast Cells in Hyperalgesia."

The latter project is the work of Keta Desai, a senior neuroscience major in CBS. For three years, she's been involved in her research which, simply put, is about studying factors related to pain.

"We're trying to find out why some people are more sensitive to pain than other people," Desai says. "By 'some people,' I mean people with chronic pain conditions like fybromyalgia. We looked at a particular type of cell—mast cells (immune system cells)—and we tried to figure out whether there's a correlation between the amount of pain sensitivity that people have and the number of mast cells that they have [in and around their spinal cord], and whether these cells are more active."

"I think this is really important for students to be able to come to the capitol and talk to someone outside of the University community about the research that we've been doing," Desai says. "A lot of the research that students do may go unnoticed sometimes, because we do research and then we move on; we don't usually stay with the lab."

She says that when she started at the U, she had no idea that undergraduate research even existed, let alone that it would be a big part of her educational experience.

"I didn't really get into [research] as a choice—it was mandatory [at CBS]—but then when I started it I realized that I really, really liked it," she says. "I'll be starting dental school in the fall but I know that after I graduate and after I start practicing I do want to do my own research and try to find some new answers within the dental field."

Amanda Ross is another CBS student who is majoring in microbiology. She joined Desai and other students on April 27 for a trip to the capitol to meet with their legislators to talk about the importance of undergraduate research and how that opportunity sets the U apart from most other colleges.

Ross, who is from Crookston, started working in a lab in October 2007 as a volunteer, then undertook her direct research project studying a vaccine for the cytomegalovirus (CMV), which causes problems in transplant patients and in many pregnancies.

"We're looking especially at preventing it from crossing the placenta during pregnancy by vaccinating the mothers," Ross says, "because it causes about the same rate of birth defects as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Down's Syndrome in the United States. It's a big public health problem, and it's actually the most common infection in infants."

"It's a great resume builder for students," she says of her research experience. "It's really nice to have something that you can present at a show, to a selection committee, or to a future employer and [be able to] say, 'This is what I've done; I have experience in the lab, I have skills.'"

Both Ross and Desai also appreciate the opportunity to showcase their work to legislators.

"I think this is really important for students to be able to come to the capitol and talk to someone outside of the University community about the research that we've been doing," Desai says. "A lot of the research that students do may go unnoticed sometimes, because we do research and then we move on; we don't usually stay with the lab."

Undergraduate research at the University (most notably the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, or UROP, now in its 24th year), gives more than 350 students each year the opportunity to tackle important topics under the guidance of faculty researchers. For more information on the U's undergraduate research programs, visit undergraduate research.

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