This summer, a group of University of Houston students have undertaken challenging medical research projects such as finding solutions for Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, migraines and lymphoma, all part of a full-time research program called the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF).
The students are among this year’s 74 SURF participants who have worked on the 10-week research programs throughout the summer under the guidance of UH faculty members. Each scholarship earned a $3,500 scholarship as part of the program.
“It’s well known that when students engage in activities such as mentored research, their likelihood of graduating is significantly increased. Over the past years, we have found that students who participate in SURF, the Provost’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship program or the Senior Honors Thesis program have a greatly improved graduation rate as compared to those who did not participate,” noted Karen Weber, the director of the Office of Undergraduate Research.
Adelle Flores is a junior focused on Alzheimer’s disease research whose interest in the disease grew when her grandmother died because of complications from the disease. Adelle is being guided by UH College of Pharmacy professor Jason Eriksen to determine if prostacyclin has a protective role in Alzheimer’s disease.
“In the future, my work could be used to potentially develop a drug that targets Alzheimer’s disease, or at the very least could help treat some of the symptoms caused by it,” Flores said. “My experience in the SURF program has been absolutely phenomenal, and it’s opened up a whole new world to me about all types of research.”
SURF alumni returned to UH this year to speak to current SURF students how they managed to continue researching careers as a result of the program, which encouraged them to study and be prepared for their future in science.
Simon Powell recalled how he felt helpless while growing up when his mother suffered from debilitating migraines. While at the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, he pursued a project related to migraine mechanisms. “Some people who get migraines experience visual disturbances or ‘auras’ that may appear as spreading grey blobs or geometric patterns right before the pain starts,” he said. “The term cortical spreading depression (CSD) describes the temporarily disturbed electrical activity in cells that slowly spreads across a region of the brain’s surface and causes these auras. While we do know quite a lot about the specific changes that happen during CSD, nobody really knows why it starts or how it might trigger the pain of a migraine.”
Thao Do, a student majoring in chemistry, explained that the research she conducted while in the SURF program provided her with a crucial opportunity to apply the knowledge taken from her studies to a real-life research project. “Metabolic syndrome, especially diabetes, is a very serious risk factor for disease, and it negatively impacts the cornea and its healing response to injury,” Do said. “Our hypothesis is that metabolic syndrome results in corneal nerve fiber changes and corneal dysfunction due to obesity-associated inflammation that precedes the development of diabetes. Our preliminary data suggest that replacing a high-fat diet with a low-fat one reverses corneal nerve damage and increases corneal sensitivity. Thus, a low-fat diet is not only important for reversing obesity, but also has the potential to restore corneal nerve structure and function, thereby restoring visual acuity.”
Taylor Hinchliffe also learned valuable lessons from the SURF program; he has degrees in biology and Chinese studies and feels the way he understands the entire research process since conceptualizing, planning and executing the experiments. Hinchliffe, who wants to continue to pursue medicine, describes his SURF experience as “amazing” and useful.
Glenn Frutiz, also a biology major, participated under the mentorship of Tasneem Bawa-Khalfe in the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling to perform research on how androgens affect the growth of breast cancer cells that carry its receptor. “I became interested in this topic after my professor taught our molecular biology class that the proteins around which our DNA is wound can be modified. I was fascinated by how proteins could be slightly altered for different purposes and how those changes could have implications such as gene silencing,” Frutiz concluded.