Rutgers-Camden program aims for tech-science diversity

Kelle-Shae Bryson (right) and Sarah Kamal gather data on plant samples in the lab at Rutgers-Camden.
Kelle-Shae Bryson (right) and Sarah Kamal gather data on plant samples in the lab at Rutgers-Camden. (LUKE RAFFERTY / Staff)
Posted: July 23, 2013

It's a good thing red bread mold grows so quickly.

Camden County College student Paul Manofu has only a few weeks to study the effects of tobacco on the fast-growing Neurospora crassa, considered a "model organism" for research because of its 24-hour growth spurts.

He's hoping the experiment offers clues in the study of the "internal clock" that helps regulate cycles such as sleeping patterns, eating times, and energy levels. It's all part of a larger project led by Rutgers-Camden biology professor Kwangwon Lee.

"If the circadian rhythm is altered in the model organism, it's likely to be modeled in humans as well," Manofu said, as he examined six glass tubes bound together with the fungus growing inside, fuzzy bursts of peach-colored mold every few inches.

Manofu is one of 10 students spending the summer at Rutgers-Camden in a 10-week research program in the school's Center for Computational and Integrative Biology.

"It's normally cutting-edge research in a variety of fields. . . . [Students] get to see something they had never thought possible, to work side-by-side with expert research scientists and do their own research and see how difficult it can be and how rewarding it can be when they get those results," said Sophie George, a program manager in the National Science Foundation's Biosciences directorate.

The goal of the "Research Experiences for Undergraduates" program is to attract students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math who otherwise might not be able to pursue those interests, said mathematics professor Benedetto Piccoli, who brought the program to Rutgers by applying for a NSF grant.

The science foundation requires its REU sites, such as Rutgers, to keep in touch with alumni, tracking their eventual career paths. Less than half of the participating students have been white in recent years, according to national data, and female students make up about two-thirds of the population.

The program at Rutgers-Camden markets to nearby county colleges, as well as to military veterans. This year, the first year for this particular REU fund, three students each come from Burlington and Camden County Colleges, and four come from Rutgers-Camden.

"What I would like to see three years from now is the heritage of this program - that is, to see what are the students doing?" said Piccoli, who is director of Center for Computational and Integrative Biology. "I hope that at least a good number of them will go into STEM fields."

The NSF has given Rutgers-Camden $106,427 to date, which provides for full room and board for the 10 students to live on campus, while also providing them a $5,000 stipend for the summer.

There are about 900 REU sites across the country, the NSF said.

Programs in computational biology, which uses quantitative methods for projects such as using computer software to model complex systems, are relatively rare, George said. So the proposal to start an REU site at a school with an established computational biology center immediately stood out, she said.

"I wanted to see if I would be interested in the research side of science," said Sarah Kamal, 20, who attends Camden County College. "I really like it; I like the whole trial and error and [how] everything's organized in steps, how you make yourself a schedule . . . I really like research right now."

"I never knew all these details about genes," Kamal said, glancing over at the other two students in the lab, Burlington County College's Kelle-Shae Bryson and Rutgers-Camden's Lyla Jno Baptiste. The three grow mutated Arabidopsis plants in an effort to determine which genes influence cell structure in what ways.

The students will end up growing only a small fraction of the more than 4,000 genes they have identified for study, but the slow-moving science is important and, they said, rewarding.

Each Arabidopsis plant has a different single gene knocked out. Careful observation of each plant, they hope, will allow them to determine each gene's role.

"I feel like just doing that is so significant. If you can boil it down to just what genes they are," Kamal said, "It can help later with predicting if people could have children that are going to have problems, mental illnesses, and also with plants. . . . We can make bigger corn, bigger anything, any plant - smaller, shorter, any size we want."

Piccoli, the director of the program, said he sees his own team of students developing a sense of accomplishment as they work together.

Julianne Thornton, a student at Camden County College, spends several hours driving around, looking for birds on wires to photograph. She then uses the photos to calculate the distance between each bird, hoping to find patterns.

Also working on the project are Bryan Gachomo, of Rutgers-Camden, and Tevin Wilson, a student at Burlington County College. The three also study video clips of birds, measuring the responses of the birds as they reposition themselves. They hope to determine "handiness," Piccoli said: Do birds seem to prefer directions the way humans are right- or left-handed?

Regardless of how far the students get, they will have gained valuable experience understanding the trial-and-error scientific process, Piccoli said.

Students present their findings in a symposium at the end of the summer, and REU projects often lead to publishable findings, George said.

There's more to the REU experience than the hands-on lab work, George said, citing workshops on graduate school, scientific ethics, and even a discussion of women in science.

"There's a lot for this particular program that I think each student will learn from each other and from their mentors," she said.


Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220, jlai@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @elaijuh.

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