The Colgate Scene
January 2005

The NIH Study Group
A crash course in professional science

Michele Tenorio '05 and Dr. John Hammer look over a DNA sample in his molecular cell biology lab at the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute. Among other projects, the lab studies melanocytes, pigment-producing cells in the skin of mice. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Naveen Hussain '06 conducts research in the National Cancer Institute's Mammary Biology and Tumorigenesis Laboratory, directed by Dr. Barbara Vonderhaar, whose specialty is breast cancer.

This fall, to get to Maruf Khan's workspace, a visitor had to sign in with a guard in the lobby of his building, ride an elevator to the second floor, and plead via intercom to be buzzed in through a set of security doors. She then had to make her way down a corridor packed with humming refrigerators and incubators, hang a right into the room across from the tissue culture area, and navigate a maze of centrifuges, flow cytometers, confocal microscopes, and test tube- and beaker-laden lab tables to the spot where Khan, a senior majoring in molecular biology, carried out experiments and gathered data.

No, the Dhaka, Bangladesh, native wasn't working in Olin Hall post-an-Office-of-Homeland-Security-style extreme makeover. He was studying virology at the Bethesda, Md.-based National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of the nation's most advanced science facilities.

Khan and 15 students from Colgate and two other colleges spent the semest- er and the better part of the preceding summer with the organization through the university's NIH Study Group. The decade-old program offers undergraduates interested in the biomedical sciences six-month, intensive research experiences involving more than 30 hours of work each week in NIH labs of their choosing. According to coordinators, the initiative is the only formal one like it in the United States.

Throughout the semester, the students follow a straightforward schedule. One or two mornings a week, they attend class -- in a meeting room of their apartment building in the heart of Washington, D.C., in the case of Khan's group -- and then they head out to the NIH for the remainder of the week. The research they conduct there, said Nancy Pruitt, professor of biology and director of the fall 2004 program, often stretches their skills to the limit and advances the frontiers of their respective fields.

"I'm sure it's tough for them sometimes because they are doing cutting-edge stuff, but they are all so into it," Pruitt said. "The group really immerses them in the culture of science, and gives them a crash course in what it means to be a `professional scientist.'"

Maruf Khan '05 and Dr. Jonathan Yewdell view a microscopic imager in their lab at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Carl Wivvag '06 shows off his periodical table T-shirt. Wivvag studied methylation rates in the genome in Dr. Larry Brody's lab at the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Khan, for example, spent his time investigating the complicated cellular process of protein degradation. (The 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry went to three pioneers in this field, incidentally.) The cells of all living organisms, he explained, continually break down (or "degrade") their protein molecules, which are building blocks of cells. In essence, the process is Mother Nature's form of quality control; it enables cells to dispose of potentially dangerous substances that can gum up the highly sophisticated cellular machinery. Khan's job was to investigate how cells decide which proteins to degrade.

Figuring out how proteins degrade in the best way possible will give scientists a better understanding of human immunity and degenerative diseases, Khan explained of the larger purpose of his project. Such information, he said, could one day help doctors develop vaccines or medicines for as-yet incurable illnesses like cancer, Alzheimer's disease, or cystic fibrosis.

Fellow study group participants conducted equally important research. Among them, Carl Wivagg, a junior from Bethany, Conn., explored methylation rates in the genome. Redmond, Ore., resident Katie George, also a junior, did her own work on proteins with the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health. And Varun Sondhi, a senior from Chandigarh, India, studied neuronal differentiation in the lab of Nobel Laureate Marshall Niremberg.

Working on such impressive projects as undergraduates was definitely considered a huge perk by all of the students involved, said Michelle Tenorio, a senior from Waipahu, Hawaii. (Tenorio studied melanocytes, a pigment-producing cell, in the skin of mice.) But there were other bonuses as well: seeing the inner workings of the NIH in particular, she explained, helped her to develop an appreciation of all of the behind-the-scenes research that goes into developing drugs and treatments for illnesses. For Tenorio, an aspiring doctor, "that kind of knowledge will definitely help me when I apply to medical school next year."

Khan also saw the practical benefits. "We really got a feel for research and what it is that scientists in the `real world' do," he said. "We also learned what it's like to be a part of a large research endeavor like the NIH."

The researchers at the NIH seemed only too happy to provide such an experience. Prior to the fall 2004 semester, Khan's mentor, Jonathan Yewdell, chief of the Cellular Biology Section in the Laboratory of Viral Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and father of William "Teddy" Yewdell '07, hadn't had an undergraduate in his lab at any point during his 17 years at the NIH. After working with Khan ("I've never seen someone so well prepared") he said he'd jump at the chance to do so again. He gave one qualification: "The student has to be at least half as good as Maruf."

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