Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium highlights student innovators
CLEMSON, South Carolina – The stepping stones of scientific advancement rely on the identification of genes involved in cytokinesis, the processivity of dynein motor proteins, the construction of neural circuits – or some other equally-obscure-sounding research – because these are the studies that lay the groundwork for the development of cures or novel disease treatments that will better our everyday lives.
Investigations like these were tackled by 87 undergraduate students during their summer of research at Clemson University. On July 27, the students gathered for the 5th Annual Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Watt Family Innovation Center, which was supported financially by the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Science. Featured students showcased the culmination of their research efforts in the form of a poster competition, in which fourteen students took home awards. Three of those students are a part of the College of Science – Madeline Hemmingsen, William Scammon and Jessica Zielinski.
Hemmingsen, Scammon and Zielinski are just a few of 36 students who were advised by College of Science faculty from the departments of biological sciences, genetics and biochemistry, physics and astronomy and chemistry throughout the course of their summer programs. By collaborating with faculty advisors, the students were able to develop projects that not only contributed to scientific discovery, but also sharpened their critical thinking skills.
A large number of students featured in the symposium attended other universities but studied at Clemson over the summer through the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) internship program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Five of these students – Angelica Quinones, Hannah Mummey, Austin Parsons, Xu Han and Pedro Martinez – were advised by College of Science faculty from the departments of biological sciences and genetics and biochemistry.
Of the winners, Hemmingsen is a rising senior majoring in genetics who conducts research under Joshua Alper, an assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy. This summer, she studied two families of dynein motor proteins in the single-celled algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii.
Dyneins can be envisioned like a train on a track; they’re proteins that slide along microtubules within cells to release energy and transport cellular cargo. Hemmingsen’s research set out to study differences in processivity between the two dynein families: How long can the dyneins hold onto microtubules before falling off? The longer the dynein can grasp, the more processive it is.
“A better understanding of why one family is processive and the other isn’t could be important in figuring out the future of pathogenic bacteria – helping to keep people healthy, work with human ciliopathies, areas like that,” Hemmingsen said.
Scammon, another student from Alper’s lab, is a senior majoring in bioengineering. Scammon’s summer research had him simulating the formation of brain synapses – the structures between neurons that pass electrical signals – using an instrument called an optical tweezer.
“We designed a system to construct neural circuits from scratch at the individual cell level that mimics how memories form in the brain,” Scammon said. “These neural circuits are how the brain functions – the input and output of it, how it adapts and learns.”
Scammon’s project contributes toward the understanding of how the brain stores and processes information.
Zielinski, the other winner from the College of Science, studies a pathogenic fungus called Cryptococcus neoformans under assistant professor Lukasz Kozubowski of the genetics and biochemistry department. Zielinski is a rising senior in biochemistry.
“The aim of my project was to identify genes that might be important for cytokinesis and more specifically, might be involved in the septin pathway,” Zielinski said.
Because septin proteins have not been fully characterized in C. neoformans, Zielinski’s work could lead to a potential drug target for treating cryptococcal meningitis, a fungal infection of the brain, in immunocompromised patients.
While Hemmingsen, Scammon and Zielinski took home awards for their research, many other students presented fascinating lines of inquiry, led by College of Science faculty.
Zhane’ Cox, an REU student from Savannah State University, studied with alumni professor of chemistry William Pennington. Under Pennington’s advisement, Cox employed halogen bonding to develop unique crystals that can be used to generate electricity in solar-powered cells.
Mark Anayee – a senior in materials science and engineering who conducts chemistry research in professor Shiou-jyh Hwu’s lab – spent the summer creating materials that could one day supply power to supercharged batteries.
Casey Dowdle and Yanni Koutsioukis – two students from the department of physics and astronomy – worked with post-doctoral fellow Yunxiang Sun in the field of biophysics. The team used computers to model peptide systems that slow the dispersal of medicine throughout the body.
Clemson’s College of Science will be holding its own research symposium on Sept. 22 during the university’s Family Weekend, which is sure to feature another cast of student innovators.