Experience, so they say, is the best teacher. But when it comes to cutting-edge laboratory-based research, hands-on work often is the exclusive purview of graduate students and faculty. So how does an undergraduate student interested in research go about obtaining the experience and exposure that can help launch a career?
For one group of Vanderbilt undergrads, the Systems Biology and Bioengineering Undergraduate Research Experience (SyBBURE) Searle Undergraduate Research Initiative helps bridge that gap. 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 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 and Cambridge, as well as Vanderbilt.
SyBBURE Searle participants explore science at the intersection of systems biology and bioengineering. To date, about 110 students have participated in the program, which owes its existence to the financial support of D. Gideon Searle, BS’75.
In 2006, Searle made a commitment to fund the Searle Undergraduate Research Initiative within the Vanderbilt Institute for Integrative Biosystems Research and Education. The aim of the initiative was to provide undergraduate students with mentored experiences in advanced scientific investigation with some of the university’s leading research and teaching faculty. D. Gideon Searle is the great-great-grandson of G.D. Searle, founder of the pharmaceutical giant that bore his name (the company is now part of Pfizer Inc.). Gideon Paul Searle, the son of D. Gideon Searle, is also a Vanderbilt graduate, having earned his bachelor’s degree in 2007.
While SyBBURE Searle is open to any Vanderbilt undergraduate, most participants are nascent scientists and researchers who crave more focused educational experience. Most are selected by Kevin Seale, MS’97, PhD’00, SyBBURE Searle’s director, and John Wikswo, who directs the Vanderbilt Institute for Integrative Biosystems Research and Education.
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, explains Wikswo, the Gordon A. Cain University Professor, A.B. Learned Professor of Living State Physics, and professor of biomedical engineering, molecular physiology and biophysics, and physics.
“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? SyBBURE Searle is a place where it’s totally acceptable to be ignorant. There are no stupid questions.”
For Peter DelNero, BE’11, who majored in chemical and biomolecular engineering, SyBBURE Searle’s appeal was its interdisciplinary platform. “Through my peers and advisers in SyBBURE,” he says, “I had access to a broad knowledge base with which to approach new problems in bioengineering.”
Via SyBBURE Searle, DelNero completed an internship in Switzerland, where his passion for cancer research was born. Now a doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering at Cornell University, DelNero’s work focuses on tissue engineering of cancer tumors.
Describing SyBBURE Searle as “the single most influential element of my undergraduate education,” DelNero says, “My interaction with pre-eminent SyBBURE faculty in biology, engineering and medicine formed my decision to pursue a Ph.D. at Cornell.”
Jake Hughey, BE’07, a biomedical engineering and mathematics major, puts it succinctly: “I wouldn’t be at Stanford if not for SyBBURE,” says Hughey, who is now a doctoral candidate in bioengineering. “It profoundly shaped me as a scientist.”
While most SyBBURE Searle participants are high achievers like DelNero and Hughey, selection for the experience isn’t based on GPA or transcripts alone, explains Kevin 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 junior 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, and as a Vanderbilt student, John Wikswo was his dissertation adviser.
Now Katherine 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.”
Students like Roth receive a stipend while in SyBBURE Searle’s labs. “They become credible instantly,” says Seale. “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.”
Parker Gould, BE’11, says SyBBURE Searle was seminal to his graduate studies at the University of Cambridge, particularly in helping to foster tenacity. “There were times in my research when ‘success’ meant failing less often or when a ‘good’ yield was one out of two,” says Gould, who majored in electrical engineering and political science at Vanderbilt. He joined SyBBURE Searle as a second-semester freshman and worked on a rotary planar peristaltic micropump (RPPM).
“The work started with a meeting that was supposed to be about fixing a flaw in another pump. Two days and eight hours later, we had the design for the RPPM hashed out,” Gould says. Two weeks later a working prototype had been completed. Ninety days later a provisional patent application was ready. Within 15 months the full patent application had been completed and a journal article about it submitted, he says.
For Seale, the payoff is found 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.”
Find out more: sybbure.org
© 2015 Vanderbilt University | Photography: JOHN RUSSELL, JOE HOWELL, LINDSAY FRANCE (CORNELL), ANDREW DAVIS TUCKER (UGA) | Illustrations: BRUNO MALLART
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Disease fascinates Dalis Collins.
“Some of the most interesting diseases not only affect humans but also animals,” says Collins, BS’09, who was an engineering science and cellular and molecular biology major at Vanderbilt. She sees cross-species viral diseases such as Ebola, Nipah and Hendra as a new frontier where she can take her SyBBURE Searle training and delve deeply into viruses that have the potential to affect people.
Dalis Collins, BS’09, examines a standard poodle as part of her veterinary training at the University of Georgia. As a SyBBURE Searle researcher, she worked as part of a team to develop protocols for analysis of fresh blood with microfluidic devices.
“It’s important to expose students to doing research as early as possible,” says Collins, whose interest in cross-species diseases was born of working in a veterinary clinic as a teenager. “Research helps excite people about math and science, which can broaden a person’s opportunities. And research is unique because you get paid for thinking and asking questions.”
Collins’ goal is to earn a doctorate in pathology after completing her veterinary degree at the University of Georgia, where she is in her third year. From the springboard of SyBBURE Searle, where she worked on improving cell-sorting technology, Collins spent the summer after graduating from Vanderbilt working in shark husbandry at the Center for Shark Research in Sarasota, Fla.
More recently, she completed summer research at Johns Hopkins University, where she used mice to study genetic factors in breast cancer. Her work at Hopkins required injecting 120 mice daily for 20 days and sometimes entailed chasing escapees. Working with animals can be rewarding, but it has its drawbacks.
“Monkeys are cute,” she cautions, “but they throw poop at you.”
After completing her doctorate, Collins could work for a biotech firm or drug company. “Vets are working at the Centers for Disease Control, and major medical universities have veterinarians doing comparative pathology,” she says.
Her engineer’s gift for problem solving has helped set her apart from her classmates. “SyBBURE helped prepare me for veterinary school by equipping me with the ability to critically evaluate research papers and studies,” she says. “Problem solving is about getting all the information available at the beginning, analyzing it, and drawing conclusions from it.”
As a first-year Vanderbilt student, Will Matloff had set his sights on a post-graduation professional degree. Since joining SyBBURE Searle during his second year, however, the biomedical engineering and mathematics major has been moving in a new direction.
Drawn by the commitment and focus exhibited in the SyBBURE Searle lab environment, Matloff finds the opportunity for independent inquiry compelling. “The greatest thing about the SyBBURE experience is that students like me can be intimately involved in projects and have a role in them,” says Matloff, now a Vanderbilt junior. “The lab is a very exciting place with many interesting projects that are tackling important problems I’m interested in.”
Will Matloff displays the 16-channel microformulator he has been developing in SyBBURE Searle. The device is designed to continuously formulate customized media mixtures at a rate of 500 nanoliters per minute.
Matloff’s work focuses on development of a microformulator for cell research as a chemical signal generator. By varying combinations of 16 chemical inputs, the device will stimulate cells while their response is measured. Ultimately, it could prove a valuable tool for scientists probing how individual cells respond to a large number of environmental conditions.
Beyond the research itself, Matloff is motivated by the camaraderie among fellow SyBBURE Searle researchers and their interaction with faculty and staff. “It helps that most participants are undergraduates,” he says. “We’re always sharing microfabrication techniques and helping each other solve problems. We push each other to improve our performance in every aspect.
“In our weekly Journal Club, we eat together while discussing an article and hear about one another’s progress. For me, the greatest challenge is learning to direct projects I’m working on, finding the optimal next step, designing effective experiments and troubleshooting microfabrication. Overall, the process is very good practice for any endeavor.”