August 5, 2019

Fellowship Program Gives Undergrads Glimpse Into Biomedical Research Careers

By Susan Van Dusen

“I want to be a scientist, most definitely,” said Walters, a native Jamaican and biochemistry major at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

That dream of a future in the research field was cemented by Walters’ two-time participation in a summer fellowship at UAMS sponsored by Arkansas INBRE, a program funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and designed to promote biomedical research capacity and support for promising undergraduate students.

Larry Cornett, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for research at UAMS, serves as principal investigator for Arkansas INBRE and has worked on the Summer Research Fellowship Program since its inception in 2002.

“The summer program is one of the most exciting parts of my job. It opens doors for students, many of whom are the first person in their family to attend college, and shows them firsthand what it takes to be part of a research team,” Cornett said.

INBRE Summer Research Fellow Huddoy Walters (back) works with mentor Antino Allen, Ph.D., in his lab at UAMS.

INBRE Summer Research Fellow Huddoy Walters (back) works with mentor Antino Allen, Ph.D., in his lab at UAMS.

In addition to pairing rising juniors and seniors with scientists at UAMS, students in the 10-week program also are placed at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, which participate in Arkansas INBRE as research-intensive lead institutions. In 2019, a total of 13 students participated at UAMS, and three took part at the University of Arkansas.

During his first stint in the program during summer 2018, Walters conducted biochemistry research in a lab at the University of Arkansas. He spent the following summer at UAMS working alongside Antino Allen, Ph.D., associate professor in the UAMS College of Pharmacy Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

“My first research experience was in a program much like the INBRE Summer Research Fellowship. Now, by serving as a mentor, I can provide the same type of opportunities to the next generation of scientists,” said Allen, whose research examines how inflammation and oxidative stress affect neuronal anatomy and cognitive function after exposure to X-rays, heavy ion irradiation or traumatic brain injury.

For participant Madison Blue, the program provided the chance to experience graduate-level research before completing her biochemistry degree at Hendrix College in Conway.

“The fellowship program helped prepare me for what I’ll encounter in graduate school, and I didn’t have to leave Arkansas to participate,” said Blue, a Jonesboro native.

Blue, Walters and the additional fellows also participated in weekly workshops addressing topics such as research ethics and science writing. To wrap up their experience, they presented their research at the Central Arkansas Undergraduate Research Symposium, held July 26 at UAMS. A travel award offered to each summer fellow gives them an additional opportunity to present their research at an upcoming symposium or conference of their choice.

Robert Eoff, Ph.D., a cancer researcher who served as Blue’s mentor, said working with undergraduates brings a renewed energy to his lab and helps him improve his own teaching skills.

“For many of the students, this is their first exposure to biomedical research, so we have to break things down to be sure that the rationale for the study design and experimental details are clear and understandable,” said Eoff, associate professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Eoff’s research team studies what happens when DNA damage is not repaired in a timely manner and ends up blocking the ability to replicate cells.

The fellowship program also serves the important function of connecting UAMS to undergraduate institutions across the state, where up-and-coming researchers begin their training.

The UAMS-based Arkansas INBRE program manages the initiative for partners that include the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Arkansas State University, Hendrix College, Ouachita Baptist University, John Brown University and others.

“From my perspective, there’s a great cooperative spirit between UAMS and the colleges we work with across the state. It’s our goal to provide students with opportunities and experiences that elevate them to a level where they know first-hand what it means to perform biomedical research, which helps them become better advocates for science and more competitive applicants for grad school or other educational opportunities in the future,” Eoff said.

Cornett agreed, stating that he and the mentors grow attached to their students and continue to monitor their educational process. Two Summer Research Fellows have even gone on to become UAMS faculty members: Lindsey Dayer, Pharm.D., associate professor in the UAMS College of Pharmacy, and Stephanie Byrum, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAMS College of Medicine.

“It’s always satisfying to see our fellows succeed in their chosen field,” Cornett said.

INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health under the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) Program of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.