I have a friend who as a graduate student invested five years into a research project in immunology. She walked into a meeting with her dissertation committee one summer thinking it was the last briefing on her work before defending for her doctorate, and left the room with a non-thesis masters. Something in her project had gone terribly wrong in the eyes of the committee and five years of work and promise ended up worthless in the end for an unsuspecting graduate student. She was a determined student and started over in another program and in about four more years received her doctorate. What a horror story!
Our fifth guiding principle is “choose projects with a high probability of success“. We do not believe in placing students in situations where the outcome of their capstone work could leave them with nothing to show for the semester. There are two ways we do this. First, we do not allow students to enter into research where the results are a huge gamble – “win big or go home” is not our idea of sound research…at least not with a student’s first self-designed project conducted in their last year of college as a requirement for graduation. For this reason, we seldom allow students to start with a blank piece of paper for their design. Student-conceived project ideas tend to be too grandiose and risk-laden to be practical under our timeline. Remember our other guiding principles: ”Keep it simple, keep it short!”, and “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should!” So, we talk with the student and try to steer them into projects where the basic infrastructure and literature base and track record for results are clearly established on our campus. Then we talk about what is known in the literature and what is not known, allowing the student to carve out a short, simple project that is meaningful (has unknown outcomes and thus represents real research). So, you might say the project is student chosen from within departmental imposed parameters.
The second way we help students build a project with a high probability of success is through careful attention to experimental design. We pride ourselves on helping students design projects that maximize results while minimizing work and time. We want students to complete their planned experiments, conduct follow-up experiments, and produce their research paper or poster quickly. That can only happen in this way. So, we make sure that the first experiment (the initial planned work by the student) provides data that is unique and useful whatever the outcome. Experiments that either work or don’t work are not considered (the suggestion from that is either success or failure is the only result possible). Instead, experiments are designed with the follow-up experiment in mind – if it turns out this way, we’ll do this…but if it turns out that way, we’ll do that. By taking this approach, we teach students the importance of not just designing an experiment, but planning a project.
In the coming months, take a look at our webpage where the results of student capstone projects will be posted. It is called “The Lab Report”. (http://blogs.mcm.edu/thelabreport/)
For the past decade, one of the most popular television franchises has been CSI, where the tools of forensic science are used to solve crime. The BIMS program was created to provide students with the knowledge and skills needed to join their TV counterparts to help bring criminals to justice.
But forensic science is MUCH more than DNA fingerprinting and other biotech and immunological methods. Sometimes, the key evidence is provided by six-legged pests. This semester, upper level students in Dr. Tierney Brosius’ Entomology class and two capstone students are joining scientists from universities across the country in a project being directed by the University of Nebraska to study chemical attractants that draw flies to decaying flesh and to see what species are most commonly attracted by which chemical.
To do their work, students will create bait traps containing suspect chemicals and scatter them around campus. Then, over the course of many days the flies attracted will be counted and identified to search for patterns and answers. Results will be added to those from students from other schools to see whether there are regional differences in effective chemicals and in species attracted.
More than anything, such studies provide students with valuable experience participating in the industry of science. But another benefit is the realization that the glamour and simplicity of television science and technology come about through long, hard work done by dedicated researchers.
Sheena Banks, McMurry class of 2006, presented aspects of her graduate research on HIV Mediated CD4+ Cell Depletion. Ms. Banks completed a Master’s degree in Immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and currently works as a Research Associate at the Texas Tech School of Pharmacy in Abilene, Texas.
An understanding of the retroviral replication process is very important in the successful treatment of HIV. The HIV virus infects a variety of immune cells expressing a surface protein receptor called CD4. These cells are central to the immune system’s mounting a specific response to a variety of infections, and their destruction effectively renders the patient void of a functioning immune system. Many times, treatment appears to be successful for a time, but later AIDS develops as the body is compromised by secondary infections. HIV infected cells persist in the body through a variety of mechanisms–latent periods with a resurgence and rapid mutation rates that render specific immune responses to foreign agents incapable of reining in and defeating an HIV infection.
Sheena worked on a project using mice to find ways to encourage infected cells to “home”, or seek the lymph nodes where they might undergo apoptosis – the natural cell death process used to remove damaged cells from the body. During the course of an HIV infection, CD4 cells migrate from the blood to lymph nodes, where 90-95% are destroyed by infection. The fate of the remaining 5-10% CD4-bearing cells was not known. Her work determined that these cells are actually T-regulatory cells whose role is to slow down the immune response once an infection is over and to recruit CD4 cells to lymph nodes. She found that the presence of T-regulatory cells promoted an environment within the lymph nodes that favored HIV proliferation, rather than apoptosis – normal programmed cell death processes that remove damaged cells from the body. Such a ”sorting out” of the roles and activities of T-regulatory and CD4 cells
during the course of an HIV infection is an important step in finding new strategies for treatments vs. HIV infections, something Sheena says is the goal of HIV researchers right now.
Sheena graciously fielded a great many diverse questions on HIV infections and research, and offered McMurry students opportunities to work in the labs at TTU School of Pharmacy-Abilene – participating in research on cancer, viral infections, developmental biology, and many other ongoing projects guided by TTUSOP faculty.