Science Undergraduates Tackle Research That Can Make a Difference

Posted: May 1, 2013 at 5:02 am, Last Updated: May 2, 2013 at 6:23 am

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By Michele McDonald

Haymond with her mentor, professor Robin Couch. Photo by Craig Bisacre

Amanda Haymond with her mentor, professor Robin Couch. Haymond, a chemistry major, was the undergraduate keynote speaker at this year’s College of Science Undergraduate Research Colloquium. Photo by Craig Bisacre

A high school chemistry teacher set graduating senior Amanda Haymond down her current path of finding new ways to fight old diseases.

George Mason University chemistry major Haymond presented her work on April 26 at the College of Science (COS) Undergraduate Research Colloquium. Haymond, who studied Yersinia pestis, more popularly known as the causative agent of the plague, was the event’s undergraduate student keynote speaker.

Haymond looked at what would happen if an enzyme, called MEP synthase, was blocked. Without this enzyme, the plague, rabbit fever and E. coli will die.

“We have a lot of bacteria out there that are antibiotic-resistant,” says Haymond. “This is a huge problem.”

Haymond wants to go into the pharmaceutical industry to continue the work she started in college. The work she presented is a first step in a long process of finding better ways to defeat disease.

Zeller. Photo by Craig Bisacre

Math major Alexandra Lynn Zeller explains her project, which looked at how bacteria can be used as fertilizer. Photo by Craig Bisacre

Presenting posters helps prepare students for a career in research, says Haymond, while discussing her work at the Mason Inn in a room abuzz with fellow students. “It definitely helps you communicate your ideas effectively.”

Robin Couch, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, mentored Haymond. “This session gives students the opportunity to showcase their work,” he says. “It motivates them to work harder.”

And Couch is just a little proud of his student. “I’m beaming,” he says.

The COS poster session expanded this year. Sixty-four undergraduate students from all COS academic programs presented scientific posters describing hypothesis-driven research they performed at Mason and collaborating institutions.

Students performing research in the Inova Biomedical Internship Program in Neuroscience also presented their projects, says Amy VanMeter Adams, the event’s organizer and a research specialist with George Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine.

Math major Alexandra Lynn Zeller worked with Padmanabhan Seshaiyer, mathematical sciences professor, to detail how the Rhizobium bacteria can fertilize plants instead of using the usual chemical fertilizer. Countries in developing nations could use bacteria as a fertilizer alternative, she says.

Zeller scrambled to the poster session on Friday after playing alto sax in the Green Machine pep band at Mason President Ángel Cabrera’s inauguration.

She didn’t grow up with a love for math; a high school teacher changed that, turning the junior undergraduate into a math enthusiast. “I had hated it until that point,” says Zeller. Her teacher showed her how math is used in daily life. “She told me math is what makes your cell phones work, your TVs work.”

Now Zeller wants to become a high school teacher and develop a curriculum to help students understand the beauty of numbers. “There is art in math,” she says.

Aspiring physicians from Inova’s Biomedical Internship Program in Neuroscience can experience the research side of medicine, says Harleen Bath, clinical research associate with Inova Neuroscience Research. “We try to provide them with real-world clinical research experience,” she says. “They can shadow a physician. But their real task is to delve into patient outcomes with treatment and to look at the process of care.”

The internship is in its second year. Yousef Fazel, a senior chemistry major, plans to become a doctor. Fazel’s research studied how patients with strokes have difficulty clapping. This simple task can be incorporated into an exam that assesses whether or not a patient has had a stroke.

Hands-on experience at Mason helped Fazel decide what career he plans to pursue. Bench lab science had him glued to a lab and bioinformatics had him glued to a computer. But after working with Beverly C. Walters, Inova’s director of clinical research in the Neuroscience Research Program, Fazel decided to fold in research along with caring for patients.

“I was able to learn what I want to do now, instead of figuring it out many years down the line,” says Fazel.

Write to Michele McDonald at mmcdon15@gmu.edu

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