A Summer in the Lab boosts Undergrad Experience

Published: August 09, 2013 | Read Time: 3 minutes

With blond braided hair and cut-off jeans, Hailee Holt hovers over a beaker that swirls with argon gas and chemical reactions, marking a typical workday for the sophomore chemistry major who stayed on campus over the summer break after securing a research position in SUU’s new chemistry lab.

Holt isn’t simply mixing chemicals for a grade and redundant practice in a standard lab class; she’s laying the foundation for life-saving antibiotics as an undergraduate research fellow with Dr. Nathan Werner, a chemistry professor at SUU who is synthesizing chemicals to help create more potent antibiotics able to withstand the resistance many bacteria have built against one of healthcare’s cornerstone treatments over the past 80 years.

“We’re now finding that some bacteria are resistant to antibiotics,” stated Holt. “Therefore, it’s important that labs identify new molecular structures that are more effective to combat future diseases that can’t be cured with the antibiotics we have now.”

Though she has only just completed her freshman year, Holt discusses her work with confidence. It’s clear she has done her homework, so to speak, and is very comfortable with the subject matter at hand. With three years remaining in her undergrad studies, this early experience and expertise bodes well for Holt’s future prospects when she does apply for graduate school.

“Only one year ago Hailee was just starting college and now she is doing research that most students don’t even touch until they are graduate students,” muses Werner, who says he would have done anything for such an opportunity so early on when he was a student.

“What makes this even more special,” Werner continues, “is that Hailee’s work is entirely original and will make a real impact — it will completely change how antibiotics are made.”

Holt joins a flock of other Thunderbirds who, through the Walter Maxwell Gibson Research Endowment recently gifted to the College of Science and Engineering (COSE), are able to take part in paid research fellowships during the summer months, no longer forcing them to migrate north to get much less experience in much more crowded labs at other universities.

“This research is my golden ticket to graduate school,” said Diana Bishop, who aims to make pharmaceutical production more efficient in her studies of indoles and carbazoles, the base layers of many medicines. Bishop’s work under Dr. Mackay Steffensen is also funded through the Gibson research endowment, and the senior chemistry major is grateful to have snagged a research position on campus this summer when, in previous years she settled for far less among students and faculty she had never before met.

“I’ve gone to other universities during the summer months to do research and I wasn’t allowed to do any of the research because I was an undergrad. Now, I am doing everything.”

In fact, SUU’s undergraduate research students are at a great advantage, as they gain more hands-on research experience than could ever be offered undergrad students at larger research institutions structured with a priority to master’s-and doctoral-level work.

New this year, the Walter Maxwell Gibson Endowment is one of two research endowments SUU students may utilize to complete original research. When combined with the L.S. and Aline W. Skaggs Research Funding, the University’s science students have access to more than $5 million in funding solely for undergraduate research.

Of such an opportunity, chemistry professor and faculty mentor for undergraduate research within COSE, Kim Weaver, explains, “A part of science is about memorizing facts, but there is a whole other side you can’t get from a textbook. Doing research gives you this empowering feeling that you have solved a problem no one else could before you. That is what our students are doing.”

Simply put: these students are experiencing more as undergrads than they could almost anywhere else, the effects of which will carry far beyond their four years at SUU.

The first wave of students with Gibson Endowment fellowships — eight undergrads were selected to study everything from diabetic tendencies among various ethnic groups to geologic mapping, and the forensic importance of local insects to cellular protein isolation — are in the final stages of their summer projects and will soon be publishing their original research in field-respective journals.

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