The Science and Technology Honors Program at UAB was designed to connect research-minded undergraduates with world-renowned researchers, offering students a head start on their careers and investigators a group of eager assistants. It’s a unique opportunity available nowhere else in Alabama—and as three current students explain, the idea has been an unqualified success.
By Wendy Hamilton Sowell
Taking a full load of classes, researching the physiological mechanisms of schizophrenia, and volunteering on a suicide hotline would be more than enough to keep any medical student busy. But Basil Bakir isn’t a doctor in training—at least, not yet. He’s still an undergraduate working on a degree in biomedical engineering (BME). The Montgomery native came to UAB primarily because of the BME program, which is the only one of its kind in the state. “I wanted to major in something that would give me exposure to the most basic sciences,” he says, and BME, which requires students to take a variety of basic biology and chemistry classes, fit the bill.
Bakir also knew that he wanted to pursue a long-standing interest in psychiatry, so he sought out practical opportunities to learn more about patient care and research in the field. Three nights per month, for five hours at a time, Bakir answers calls at Birmingham’s Crisis Center hotline and counsels patients with chronic conditions. This work has given him an idea of the wide range of psychiatric problems, he says, “and showed me that I really enjoy interacting with people.”
Bakir also spends up to 40 hours a week in UAB research labs, helping psychiatry chair James Meador-Woodruff, M.D., and faculty member Robert McCullumsmith, M.D., Ph.D., find synaptic abnormalities that may underlie the debilitating symptoms of schizophrenia. The researchers are focusing on the neurotransmitter glutamate, which is underactive in the brains of people with schizophrenia, says Bakir. “No one knows why this is the case, and labs like ours are trying to figure out why.” Collaborating with McCullumsmith, Bakir is comparing glutamate receptor levels in postmortem samples from healthy and schizophrenic brains. He notes that it is hard to count receptor levels directly; instead, he uses fluorescent biomarkers to measure levels of protein and messenger RNA in the samples.
Bakir’s work is attracting attention far beyond Birmingham. He has presented his findings at the Society for Neuroscience and the Alabama Academy of Sciences, and he is the primary author on a paper currently under review for publication.
It is unusual for an undergraduate to get so much practical research exposure, and Bakir credits the Science and Technology Honors Program—especially director Diane Tucker, Ph.D., and her assistant, Michele Gould—for giving him the opportunity. “It’s something I wanted to do as a freshman, but without Sci-Tech I don’t know if I would have had the courage to go out, find a lab on my own, and take on that responsibility,” he says.
Now, as a senior, Bakir says his combination of research and counseling experience has confirmed and strengthened his determination to pursue a career in mental health. “Working at the Crisis Center hotline and working in a psychiatry lab are really just two sides of the same coin to me.”
By Caperton Gillett
As she prepares for graduate school, senior chemistry student Christy Foster already has plenty of material for the “Experience” section of her resume. In fact, if she wanted to, she could add this eye-catching line: 2007-present—Tested a potential cure for cancer.
Foster has been working in the lab of gene-therapy researcher David T. Curiel, M.D., Ph.D., on a novel method to tackle cancer. Instead of going after tumor cells directly, Curiel’s lab is recruiting the body’s natural defenses to fight off the disease. Normally, mast cells from the immune system are incapable of binding with—and destroying—cancer cells because they do not have the proper receptors to make the connection. So Curiel’s lab set out to engineer the match artificially, designing a protein “linker” coated in antibodies that are capable of attaching to both cancer cells and mast cells.
“I took part in testing to make sure the linker worked,” Foster says. “I was able to run the assays to see how well the mast cells actually stick to the tumor cells. The next step is to see if the mast cells have the ability to kill those tumor cells.”
The opportunity to be involved in meaningful research as an undergraduate—along with an innate curiosity about biology and genetics—led Foster to join the Science and Technology Honors Program, where she quickly learned essential laboratory skills and met researchers who were happy to share their expertise. “Our first semester here, we had the benefit of listening to a lot of scientists come in and talk about their work,” Foster says. “We were able to get our feet wet and see what was available. It was good to have that connection.”
In her own future career as a physician and researcher, Foster hopes to continue connecting clinical problems with innovative solutions. “I want to look at a disease in a clinical setting and then take that information to the lab and see what we can do to fix it,” she says. In fact, she already has a disease in mind. “My mom has diabetes, and as a kid, I was always curious about why she was going through treatments and giving herself shots,” says Foster. “I’d like to take the genetics experience I already have and look at diabetes.”
In the meantime, Foster still has work to do in Curiel’s lab, where the modified mast cells she has been studying may soon be ready for their trial by fire. “Will they be able to find the tumor cells in a living person or a living animal?” she says. “That’s the last step. We’ll see.”
By Wendy Hamilton Sowell
As a high-school student in Huntsville, Aaron Neal knew he wanted to pursue a career in the sciences, and he was fairly certain he was interested in infectious diseases. But he never suspected that he would soon be spending the summer in the rain forest, working on a vaccine for malaria.
UAB’s reputation in the medical field and its “major focus on undergraduate programs and research” convinced Neal to make the short drive south to Birmingham, and after earning a Chemistry Scholar Fellowship and acceptance into the Science and Technology Honors Program, he was eager to seek out research opportunities.
He found plenty in the lab of UAB infectious disease expert Julian Rayner, Ph.D. Rayner is studying the parasites that cause malaria, one of the world’s most dangerous diseases, which affects more than a half-billion people each year and kills up to 3 million. The ultimate goal of Rayner’s research is to find a vaccine for malaria, and as a member of the lab, Neal has been able to make a significant contribution. He is studying the daughter cells of the malaria-inducing parasitePlasmodium falciparum—in particular the antigen PfMSP6—in order to identify antigens that naturally provoke the immune system to attack and destroy these invaders.
In May, Neal traveled to Iquitos, Peru, to meet malaria in the field, studying the sample-collection process with doctors and other researchers. “I was able to shadow them as they prepared field packs of supplies, visited families, drew blood, documented symptoms, and took the samples to the research lab for further analysis,” Neal says.
He attributes this valuable experience to his involvement in the Science and Technology Honors Program, which helped him understand the fundamentals of research and find a mentor, as well as provided financial support. “It has given me the knowledge and ability to actively work with graduate students and faculty,” he says.
Neal says the program also taught him to “communicate scientifically”—a useful skill considering that he has already documented his research in several papers and presentations. Director Diane Tucker, Ph.D., helped guide him through those challenges and has also been a great support in making life decisions, he says. There are many of those in his future: Neal hopes to pursue a higher degree from Johns Hopkins, Harvard, or Cambridge, but he is also seriously considering UAB’s Medical Scientist Training Program.
Wherever he goes, Neal wants to be a major player in the world of infectious diseases, both in the lab and on the ground. “I would like to travel to the epicenter of outbreaks to help determine the causes of epidemics,” he says, “and prevent their further spread.”