First Summer Undergraduate Research Institute is Underway


Elizabeth Pitroff '15 and biology professor Dr. Justin Golub in the lab at MCLA's Feigenbaum Center for Science and Innovation. 

From developing computer software programs that make solving mathematical problems faster to an examination of how zebrafish embryos learn, students and their faculty mentors are engaged in MCLA's inaugural Summer 2014 Undergraduate Research Institute.

Biology major Elizabeth Pitroff '15 of North Adams, Mass., is looking at how chemical cues - introduced in the embryonic stages of zebrafish development - translate to post-hatch physiologic responses. Specifically, she's looking at how the heart rate of the fish may be altered. 

"We are actually working with a genetically modified strain of zebrafish that enable us to fluoresce their cardiac tissue to visualize the response," said Pitroff, who aims for a career in pediatric medicine.

Biology professor Dr. Justin Golub explained, "We are assessing learning inside the egg by exposing eggs to chemicals that represent danger (i.e. predator smells), paired with non-threatening chemicals, and then examining the behavior of the fish, after the eggs hatch. 

"If the embryos can learn, they associate the non-threatening cues with danger and show a fright response to those chemicals after they hatch," he added.

Pitroff said the project will contribute to her future plans in medicine in a myriad of ways. "Not only am I able to formulate an experimental design and carry out the procedure, I'm learning techniques in animal care, breeding, and maintaining an experiment."

Andrew Nelson '15, a computer science major from Quincy, Mass., and James Chapman '15 of Dudley, Mass., who is majoring in both physics and math, are working with math professor Dr. Elizabeth Hartung on "Chemical Graph Theory Research."

Hartung explained, "We are applying graph theory to analyze graphene, or patches of carbon molecules."

There is great interest in this area, Hartung said, because graphene has many applications in many fields, and a structural understanding may help synthesize types of graphene more effectively or precisely.

"Research done by others showed that these numbers may play a role in the stability of the patch. My job is to model equations that fit the upper bounds," Chapman explained.

Chapman, who plans to attend graduate school to study materials science with a focus on nanomaterials, said the research has given him insight into the field from a mathematical perspective.

In addition to showing future employers that he is capable of working on a long-term project and delivering results, Nelson said, "This project allows me to think about the problems in the field and help further my growth as a computer scientist."

Nelson and Richard Chiu '16 of Pittsfield, Mass., also a computer science major, both aspire to careers in bioinformatics. Nelson will join Chiu this fall as they work with machine learning algorithms and apply them to large biological datasets to find patterns that may lead to knowledge about disease treatment.  

The research project, "Using Machine Learning to Find Patterns in Biological Data," is funded by Nuclea, a biotechnology company in Pittsfield, Mass. It will focus on data relating to prostrate and breast cancer.

According to Nelson and Chiu's mentor, computer science professor Dr. Mark Cohen, "The idea is to do some machine learning algorithms on those data and to look for patterns that will help lead to more effective and personalized treatments for patients, based on their genetic make-up."

Hartung said the opportunity to participate in this research will be "immensely helpful" for the students' future careers.

"Doing this interdisciplinary work as an undergraduate is a great experience, both for their academic growth and for applications to graduate school or jobs in the field," she said. "Research experience is a huge advantage when applying to grad school; they want to know that you have the enthusiasm and persistence to work on a difficult problem or goal over a significant period of time."