Undergrads focus on science research during summer

It’s relatively rare for undergraduates majoring in the sciences to have the opportunity to do meaningful research. It’s rarer still for them to be able to get paid to do it.

A new program this year at Drury is allowing five undergraduates to do just that. It’s called the Research Experience in the Natural Sciences, or RENS. The program provides a stipend for students conducting self-directed research under the guidance of science faculty.

Summer is the perfect time for students to be able to focus intensely on in-depth research because they don’t have to devote time to classes, says Dr. Beth Harville, Assistant Professor of Biology at Drury. The stipend allows students to consider skipping a summer job in favor of conducting research that will help them in their future careers – especially those seeking to enter medical schools or Ph.D. programs.

Deborah Peana, senior chemistry and physics major, is using computer software to model and research protein interactions this summer. A stipend has helped her focus solely on this work.

Deborah Peana, senior chemistry and physics major, is using computer software to model and research protein interactions this summer. A stipend has helped her focus solely on this work.

Two of the students conducting RENS projects this summer are Breanna Tuhlei and Deborah Peana. Both are using high-powered computers to simulate the interactions between certain types of molecules and model the potential outcomes. Their research, conducted under the guidance of assistant professor of physics Dr. Christos Deligkaris, combines concepts from biology, chemistry and physics.

“It’s teaching me a lot about how to discipline myself; how to solve problems by myself independently,” says Tuhlei, who is studying how a molecule commonly found in fruits and vegetables could be used to prevent DNA damage caused by a carcinogen found in tobacco smoke. “And the stipend is definitely great because it’s helping with tuition expenses.”

Locating, reading and extrapolating relevant information from journal articles is one aspect that separates these projects from class work. There are no textbook assignments here.

“It forces me to take information I’ve learned in my classes, use it on my own and actually apply it, which is really rewarding – and fun,” says Peana, who is studying glycosaminoglycan-protein interactions. “It requires a lot of mental discipline to stay focused and work out problems on your own, but I think it’s definitely worth it.”

Both students feel that conducting this research as undergraduates will go a long way toward helping prepare them for graduate programs and medical schools, not to mention make them better candidates for acceptance to their programs of choice. Tuhlei is a sophomore double majoring in biology and chemistry, who hopes to be accepted into an MD-PhD program in order to become a neurosurgeon and conduct medical research. Peana is a senior double majoring in chemistry and physics, and is currently applying to MD-PhD programs.

But neither of these students has to wait until the next phase of the education to make a difference. The RENS stipend and always-accessible faculty at Drury have helped Peana truly dive into her research, which in turn has made her feel as though she’s already contributing to her field before ever leaving campus.

“I’m just starting out, but this kind of research makes me feel like a scientist and I feel like we really are practicing good research techniques,” she says.

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Story by Mike Brothers, Drury’s director of media relations. A version of this story first appeared in the Springfield News-Leader.