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Turning Pro

by Mardy Fones No Comment

Undergraduate Scientists Have Their Game On.

Top: SyBBURE Searle Director Kevin Seale, left, and rising senior Jake Brady study leukocytes from trauma patients using a computer-controlled and automated Nikon microscope funded by D. Gideon Searle last year; bottom: Katherine Roth with Professor John Wikswo. The rising senior plans a career in immunology.

What does it mean to be a liberal arts major in the heart of one of the country’s leading research universities? For some undergraduates, it means getting to do cutting-edge laboratory-based research—hands-on work that can help launch careers.

Undergraduates in Vanderbilt’s Systems Biology and Bioengineering Undergraduate Research Experience (SyBBURE) Searle Undergraduate Research Initiative work side-by-side with internationally recognized experts. One of only a handful of multiyear, year-round undergraduate research programs in the nation, SyBBURE Searle prepares students—primarily from the College of Arts and Science and the School of Engineering—for careers in research. SyBBURE Searle alumni can be found in labs and medical schools ranging from Stanford, Berkeley and Rice to Northwestern, MIT, the University of Washington, Cambridge and Vanderbilt.

SyBBURE Searle participants explore science at the intersection of systems biology and bioengineering. To date, about 110 undergraduates have participated in the program, which owes its existence to the financial support of D. Gideon Searle, BS’75.

In 2006, Searle committed to funding the Searle Undergraduate Research Initiative within the Vanderbilt Institute for Integrative Biosystems Research and Education. The aim of the initiative is to provide undergraduate students with mentored experiences in advanced scientific investigation with some of the university’s leading faculty. Searle, who doubled majored in sociology and psychology, continues the interest in science and research that was the hallmark of his great-great-grandfather, G.D. Searle, founder of the pharmaceutical giant that bore his name (the company is now part of Pfizer Inc.). Gideon Paul (G.P.) Searle, BA’07, D. Gideon Searle’s son, also graduated from the College of Arts and Science.

While SyBBURE Searle is open to any Vanderbilt undergraduate, most participants are nascent scientists and researchers who crave more focused educational experience. The majority are selected by Kevin Seale, MS’97, PhD’00, SyBBURE Searle’s director, and John Wikswo, who directs VIIBRE.

Puzzles and Answers

Wikswo says that SyBBURE Searle’s success stems from its selection of students who have a passion for scientific inquiry, and who persevere in viewing failure as just another step in the process and integral to advancing knowledge.

“In class, students know the professor knows the answers to the questions. Here we’re asking questions to which no one knows the answers. How do you measure this? What does that mean?” says Wikswo, Gordon A. Cain University Professor, A.B. Learned Professor of Living State Physics, and professor of biomedical engineering, molecular physiology and biophysics, and physics. “SyBBURE Searle is a place where it’s totally acceptable to be ignorant. There are no stupid questions.”

One of only a handful of multiyear, year-round undergraduate research programs in the nation, SyBBURE Searle prepares students for careers in research.

Although most SyBBURE Searle participants are high achievers, selection for the experience isn’t based on GPA or transcripts alone, explains Seale, assistant professor of the practice of biomedical engineering.

“We look for people who can take responsibility, who are self-starters,” he says. “We try to involve students as freshmen so we can have them as long as possible. That’s different than in most labs, where the belief is that younger students don’t know enough to be helpful.”

Katherine Roth, a rising senior majoring in molecular and cellular biology, is passionate about questions and challenges. A SyBBURE Searle student since her sophomore year, Roth says, “I like the puzzle research presents. It’s like following a chain of questions and answers. The answers just bring up more questions.”

Roth was drawn to SyBBURE Searle by its balance of independent work and access to mentors and research-motivated graduate students and undergraduates. She comes by her curiosity naturally: Her father, Brad J. Roth, MS’85, PhD’87, is a professor of physics at Oakland University. Wikswo was his dissertation adviser here, and Katherine’s mother, Shirley Oyog Roth, MS’86, also earned her degree in physics at Vanderbilt.

Katherine Roth has her sights set on obtaining a doctorate in immunology. Her research, which involves manipulating yeast cells so they produce specific proteins, has the potential to help explain cell activity.

“We don’t understand how many biological and disease systems work,” she says. “If we have a better understanding, we have a better chance of changing that behavior.”

Opportunities to Thrive

In addition to receiving stipends, SyBBURE Searle participants benefit from the kind of support and exposure some institutions reserve for graduate or doctoral students. Wikswo notes that the initiative awards prizes for the best research paper and provides funds for undergraduates to attend major conferences. “We have a dozen peer-reviewed publications with SyBBURE Searle students as authors and are filing patents with students as inventors,” he says.

Those experiences have a profound impact. “They become credible instantly,” Seale says. “They find that they have a voice and they have value. It raises their confidence to learn that while they may not necessarily be the best performers in the classroom, they are good at research and innovation.”

For Seale, the program is valuable not only in helping young researchers thrive with basic training and experience, but also in addressing a larger problem.

“There’s a lot of talk about American students not being able to compete in math and science,” he says. “We find the greater issue is that students don’t often get the opportunities they need to grow in these areas. Through SyBBURE Searle, students have that.

“In academia there’s a tendency for there to be ‘stars,’ but in SyBBURE Searle, everyone—undergrads, faculty and graduate students—is an equal player when it comes to discussing research and doing the work.”

photo credit: John Russell

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