Rising Researcher

Finding Their Path

Research experiences help students chart a course for the future
  • Rising Researcher students stand in the lobby of the Olver Design Building.

"I can assert with confidence and gratitude that the impact of my research experience at UMass is invaluable."

–Olivia Ringham

Hands-on research is a hallmark of undergraduate education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. We honor eight students from across campus with the Rising Researcher Award in recognition of their demonstrated leadership and impact in their chosen field of study.

For Commonwealth Honors College student Bianca Edozie ’19, the opportunity to work in Professor Jenny Ross’ lab helped “ignite a passion for research I never knew I had.” A double major in chemistry, and biochemistry and molecular biology, Edozie works on projects that explore various behavioral aspects of microtubules—stiff, structural elements found in animal cells. Microtubules help form the spindle apparatus during cell division and can act as an intra-cellular transport system, among other things.

Her current project centers on creating “tactoids”, biologically relevant microtubule organizations that act as model mitotic spindles in the lab. The model allows Edozie and other researchers to explore the effects of proteins and enzymes on mitotic spindle organization. She recently published a paper with Ross that is now under review at Soft Matter.

“Bianca is a brilliant student and one of the hardest working people I have ever met,” says Ross. Ross notes that Edozie represented UMass at a Research Experience for Undergraduates, which took place at Brandeis University. “She took new data, and performed incredibly difficult dynamics experiments that will continue this year as part of her honors thesis. This work will likely result in a second manuscript. I see no end to her possible future leadership in whatever field she continues,” says Ross.

In addition to her myriad technical skills, Edozie says she has learned independence in the lab setting, troubleshooting, and how to be confident. “My project has been more than just the research itself, but more specifically, what the research required me to learn as an aspiring scientist. I’ve acquired a wealth of knowledge, both new and supplemental to my education in the classroom,” says Edozie. She plans to attend graduate school in the fall.

Commonwealth Honors College student Nicholas Fragola ’19 entered UMass Amherst as a pre-med student. Currently a biochemistry and molecular biology and psychology double major, his experience as a research assistant in Professor Julian Tyson’s lab quickly changed the course of his academic career. “It really shifted my career goals, giving me a taste for the world of research and for trying to make a difference on a much larger scale,” says Fragola.

The challenge Tyson set before Fragola (part of Tyson’s collaboration with Chemists Without Borders) was to help find a way to measure arsenic that is cheap, simple to use, and can quickly provide accurate, reliable results. Arsenic in rice is a widespread problem that affects large populations around the world.

“We have adapted a kit that measures arsenic in water to detect inorganic arsenic levels in rice. We have shown that the method works in the presence of rice starch, and we are currently validating the procedure using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry, a leading method in analytical chemistry,” says Fragola. Fragola will eventually help train scientists who will implement the use of his field test kit in Bangladesh, a country with a great need for the technology.

“Nick’s work is described in an ACS Symposium series book chapter "Mobilizing Chemistry Expertise to Solve Humanitarian Problems" of which he is a co-author,” says Tyson. “His performance and accomplishments are just outstanding.”

Fragola is appreciative of the opportunity he’s been given to make a legitimate contribution to science. “I now desire to make research my career,” he says.

Taylor Guertin ’19, a biochemistry and molecular biology major and Commonwealth Honors College student, was determined to become an MD when she entered college. “If you told me that senior year I would spend 30 hours a week in lab working on my own research project (and enjoying it), I would have thought you were insane,” says Guertin. Her initial interest in research was sparked after attending a research experiences seminar given by Kimberly Tremblay, a faculty member in Veterinary and Animals Sciences.

Her first two years in the Tremblay lab were spent assisting a PhD student investigating the role of Bone Morphogenetic Protein (BMP) signaling in liver development. Their work resulted in co-authorship of a high-impact paper in Hepatology, the premier publication in the field of liver disease.

“During this time I was able to learn many different histological and molecular techniques that have helped to foster my own research project. My honors college thesis is focused on investigating the role that retinoic acid (RA) signaling plays in early liver development in mice embryos,” says Guertin.

“Taylor operates more like a mid-level PhD student than an undergraduate. She is capable of all the complicated embryological and molecular techniques needed to set up and perform her proposed experiments. I am confident that her current work will result in a first-author manuscript,” says Tremblay.

Guertin notes that her research experience has been extremely influential in the scholarships and awards that she has received. “These scholarships have made it possible for me to spend time in lab instead of working, allowing me to pursue my passion for research and driving me toward a career path where I can be successful,” she says. Guertin will apply to MD/PhD programs for admission in 2020.

For many patients suffering from blood disorders and cancer, hematopoietic stem cell (HSC) transplantation offers the best chance of survival; however, this therapy is limited due to a chronic shortage of HSCs. Under the tutelage of Assistant Professor Jungwoo Lee, Jun-Goo Kwak ’19, chemical engineering, has worked on a number of biomedical engineering projects that focus on bone marrow to develop new cell biomanufacturing solutions with the goal of making cell-based therapies more widely available.

“My research experience has centered on the development of an artificial bone marrow niche to promote HSC expansion outside of the body. We have recently developed a bone-marrow mimicking polymer scaffold that promotes the expansion of blood cells, and facilitates their retrieval by using a unique temperature switch within the polymer backbone. We are preparing to submit this research to Small where I am first author,” says Kwak.

In addition to using biomaterials to maximize the potential of blood cell-based therapeutics, Kwak has studied the evolution of disseminated tumor cells using similar artificial polymer constructs. Metastasis is the leading cause of death for nearly all cancers, but not all circulating tumor cells immediately proliferate, especially within the bone marrow, notes Kwak. Understanding how these disseminated tumor cells are influenced by their microenvironment and which conditions are favorable to promote the formation of secondary tumors is necessary to develop new therapeutic strategies to prevent or delay metastasis. His research in this area resulted in a paper accepted by Nature Biomedical Engineering with Kwak as second author.

“Jun-Goo Kwak is an amazing individual in our community who carries great potential to become a leader in the field of bioengineering and medicine,” says Lee.

Mark Leon-Duque ’19, chemistry, transferred to UMass Amherst as a second-year student interested in getting a medical degree. A sophomore seminar class offered at that time introduced Leon-Duque to research projects underway on campus. “I promptly contacted Dr. Mingxu You (chemistry) asking to shadow his lab members and by the spring semester, I was working on a project, handling the experimental portions and some of the analysis,” says Leon-Duque.

In the first two years of his time at the You lab, Leon-Duque worked closely with research fellow Aruni P.K.K. Karunanayake Mudiyanselag. Together they developed a new RNA-based imaging system for detecting small RNA molecules within live cells. “Our efforts and the resulting manuscript was published in The Journal of The American Chemical Society. I tested a few of our designs independently that earned me my name as third co-author on the publication. Currently, I am working independently on expanding this imaging system to apply to other small molecules,” says Leon-Duque.

“Publishing my first paper with Aruni and all the other contributors gave me such an exhilarated rush, a true sense of accomplishment,” says Leon-Duque.  “The project also taught me things that are completely out of the scope of the typical chemistry undergrad curriculum. I know that I want to do research, whether it will be in academia or in industry remains to be revealed. Nevertheless, I feel my sense of purpose and I will tread this path will diligence and my best effort,” he notes.

“Mark has demonstrated great potential to be an independent scientist. He can learn new techniques and knowledge very quickly and his results are repeatable and trustable,” says You.

What makes some people better learners than others? Commonwealth Honors College student Aazam Najeebi ’19 intends to find out. The psychological and brain sciences major has been working in Professor Rebecca Spencer’s lab on a project using MRI to understand how sleep changes memory representations and how this changes with aging. He became interested in what was unique about those participants who learn more quickly than others, young or old.

“This project has a lot of technology to learn, data to manage and background science to learn. Aazam began ‘hanging around’ the lab more than required and truly immersed himself in learning. He caught on to complicated analysis streams for the MR data. Not only did he learn the scripts we use, but he developed his own as he followed his curiosities,” says Spencer. 

“My project, as well as the MRI-SRT project that I have worked on for the past 8 months, has had a profound impact on my education at UMass, ignited my passion for neuroscience, and inspired me to pursue a PhD in neuroscience with the eventual goal of becoming a neuropathologist. Before I joined the Spencer lab and began working on this project I had no idea what I wanted to do after I graduated,” says Najeebi.

In just over a year of working in the lab, Najeebi has presented his research at a half-dozen research symposia and conferences. He’s also been a Summer Research Intensive Program Mentor, mentoring three high-school students by helping them to build scientific skills such as lab research techniques, hypothesis testing and formulation, and presentation skills.

“Through the elucidation of the structures essential for superior motor learning and consolidation, we can paint a picture of what truly makes people better learners than others. Once identified, these structures could be targeted with specialized neurocognitive optimization therapies designed to exercise the brain to stimulate neuroplasticity mechanisms. This could one day lead to enhancements in the motor learning ability of those who are either average or below average learners,” says Najeebi.

Commonwealth Honors College student Olivia Ringham ’19, biology, has worked on a variety of projects as a member of Assistant Professor Mark S. Miller’s Muscle Biology Lab. From the start, Ringham dove into research experiences that have fed her “inclination for scientific inquiry.”

For Ringham’s first project, she investigated the rate of torque development (RTD) of skeletal muscle and how it is affected by variables such as age, sex and calcium sensitivity. From a clinical standpoint, examining factors that influence RTD can be beneficial in helping design interventions to improve physical functionality.

Recently, she began working on a project investigating the effects of the influenza virus on skeletal muscle function in older mice. “The significance of this investigation lies in the fact that elderly populations affected by the flu experience decreased functionality of skeletal muscle post-infection. Determining the molecular mechanisms behind this could shed light on clinical interventions to help elderly recover from the flu without prolonged muscle pain and potential loss of physical independence. I have since adopted this as my honors thesis project,” says Ringham.

“I started working with Olivia when she approached me to join my laboratory as a freshman, which is an uncommon occurrence as few students are interested in diving into detailed research projects so early in their academic careers,” says Miller. “She has done exceedingly well on the projects she has worked on. Due to her excellent work with lipid droplets, she is a co-author on a manuscript recently accepted for publication in the well-respected Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences,” Miller adds.

Last summer, Ringham attended a research program at Tufts University School of Medicine, where she excelled and achieved first prize in the summer research symposium poster competition. “I do not believe I could have achieved this without the unparalleled guidance, support, education, and training that I received from joining the Muscle Biology lab. I can assert with confidence and gratitude that the impact of my research experience at UMass is invaluable,” says Ringham.

Sean Sanford ’19 is a scenic design student pursuing dual degrees in theater and psychology. A person with many interests, Sanford was able to blend his love of theater with his interests in art and science to create “important art, to entertain, and to encourage others to grow, ask questions, and to become researchers themselves.” He is also one of the youngest undergraduate students asked to design a mainstage production at UMass Amherst.

“Sean demonstrated such work ethic and artistic vision in my introductory Set Design class that I took a chance and assigned him to design the set for theater’s "Infants of the Spring",” says Anya Klepikov, assistant professor of theater. “Faced with the challenge of the unfamiliar world of the Harlem Renaissance, Sean did exhaustive and thoughtful research and designed and re-designed until the professional director of the show was satisfied with the gorgeous and compelling material world he had created. Sean impressed us all by conquering new technical and artistic challenges on a tight timeline, under the pressure of a world premiere, but with characteristically good humor and a dogged determination to live up to the responsibility,” says Klepikov.

Sanford was asked to design a second time for the theater department. He is currently working on "Wild Thing", the first-ever English translation of Luis Vélez de Guevara's "La Serena de la Vera". In addition, Sanford spent his summer as a Scenic Painting and Props intern at the renowned Westport Country Playhouse in Westport Connecticut.

“Finding scenic design at UMass has really changed my course in life. It is the perfect blend of all my strengths and everything I love,” says Sanford. “It requires intelligence in literature, through reading, understanding, analyzing, and researching text; a knowledge of history in contextualizing and researching historical significance, as well as period information; an aptitude for science through understanding materials' capabilities, limits, and opportunities. It challenges me like nothing else I have ever done. It allows me to have an impact on the world around me in a concrete way. Scenic design is what I am meant to be doing, has ignited my education, and has lit the path to my future,” says Sanford.

All eight students will be honored for their achievements at a Chancellor's reception in April.

Karen J. Hayes '85