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​Point of View: Undergraduate Research’s Lasting Benefits

Providence, R.I.--For many Providence College students, conducting research is an essential and invigorating piece of their undergraduate experience.

Students from many academic disciplines often present their diverse research on campus, at other higher-education institutions, and at regional and national conferences.

Earlier this fall, 25 biology, chemistry, and psychology students presented their intensive summer research at the fourth annual PC Sigma Xi Scientific Poster Session.

Sigma Xi--the international honor society of science and engineering--provides support for interdisciplinary research at colleges and universities, industry research centers, and government laboratories.

Several of the students whose work was on display at the Sigma Xi session recently reflected on their research and their experiences as student-researchers at PC.

  • Lichtenfelsphoto-2.jpgBenjamin Lichtenfels ’13 (East Greenwich, R.I.), biology major

    Research project title: A Gain-of-Function Screen for Transcription Factors that Regulate the Response of Candida albicans Yeast Cells to Sulforaphane
    A description of Ben’s research project
    I work with sulforaphane--an anti-cancerous drug found in broccoli. The issue with cancer is that mutations arise during cell growth, causing mutant cells, which can be dangerous to the organism. The cell normally controls this by using its own signals, which kill the mutant cells. This is called programmed cell death (PCD). Cancerous cells are ones that do not respond to PCD, and, therefore, the cells keep growing without a response to any of the PCD signals. My research is to find how the mechanism of sulforaphane kills the cancerous cells and by which pathway. My work deals with yeast. I test the drug against all these specific mutant yeasts and see which ones are killed or survive doses of the drug.
    How did you become interested in the subject matter?
    I first got interested in research when, in the first day of class freshman year, Father Nic (Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., associate professor of biology) told us about his work. From there, I relentlessly asked if I could join his lab. He finally caved in the spring of 2010. I think it’s amazing that within an everyday food there is the potential to combat cancer. Although my work is only a small part of a big struggle, it’s important because it broadens our knowledge of cancer. 
    What has the opportunity to conduct meaningful research meant to you as an undergraduate?
    Looking back to my freshman year, I never would have suspected that I would have my own project, which is amazing as an undergraduate. This has definitely increased my knowledge, not only about cancer and the organisms I am working with, but about how to deal with the issues that inevitably come up while conducting research.
    What are your future goals?
    While I am still at PC, I would like to finish my work and hopefully have it published in a journal. Beyond that, I hope to remain in science, potentially in medicine or in a research field.
  • Lunnyphoto.jpgElizabeth Lunny ’12 (Scituate, Mass.), chemistry major

    Research project title: Solution Dynamics of the Group VIII Pentacarbonyls
    A description of Elizabeth’s research project
    Working with Dr. Christopher Laperle, assistant professor of chemistry, we have two main components to our research. The first component occurs here at PC, where we investigate the solvated structure of group XIII pentacarbonyls (a metal atom in the center with five carbon monoxide molecules bound to it) in various solvents under ambient conditions using density functional theory and FTIR (Fourier Transform infrared) spectroscopy. The second component of our project involves taking ultrafast UV pump X-ray probe measurements of the ligand substitution reaction at Argonne National Lab in Chicago. These measurements tell us about the kinetics, or timescale, of the reaction. I have been working on the project since January 2010 (four semesters and two summers).
    How did you become interested in the subject matter?
    I find it fascinating that we can take measurements on a macroscopic sample and learn something about our sample on the atomic scale. When we take infrared spectra, we are essentially looking at a bunch of squiggly lines, yet these lines tell us something about the electronic structure of our sample.  
    What has the opportunity to conduct meaningful research meant to you as an undergraduate?
    Doing research has defined my experience at Providence College. I found something that I am truly passionate about and genuinely enjoy doing. I constantly find myself devoting many more hours to my project than required because it feels like a hobby rather than work. Doing research also has allowed me to see the practical implications of classroom material and has motivated me to thoroughly learn material for future applications rather than memorizing it to do well on an exam.
    I also have gained confidence in myself as a young scientist as a result of my research experience. Dr. Laperle’s constant encouragement and high standards have allowed me to exceed my own expectations. I have had the opportunity to publish two papers in peer-reviewed physical chemistry journals, one of which I was first author on. Having the opportunity to publish as an undergraduate has been an extremely rewarding experience.
    What are your future goals?
    I am currently applying to Ph.D. programs in physical chemistry.
  • McDonoughphoto.JPGThomas McDonough ’12 (Westborough, Mass.), chemistry major

    Research project title: Solvent Dependent Kinetics of the IPC-Catalyzed Photoisomerization of Allyl Alcohol
    A description of Tom’s research project
    In previous research, we have quantified the percentage of iron pentacarbonyl (IPC) molecules that form a weak, hexacoordinated complex in various solvents. The goal of this project was to understand the effects of the pre-assembly of IPC and solvent molecules in the complex on the rate of a reaction catalyzed by IPC. I’ve been working on this project since spring 2011.
    How did you become interested in the subject matter?
    I’ve developed an interest in physical chemistry through my research with Dr. Christopher Laperle. I’m intrigued by how much information can be gleaned about chemical behavior on the molecular scale. Understanding reactions on the molecular scale allows chemists to know the underpinnings of the macroscopic properties that are important in synthetic and materials chemistry. For example, the findings of my research project are important to synthetic chemists who are considering utilizing this prototypical reaction as a step in a larger synthetic procedure. 
    What has the opportunity to conduct meaningful research meant to you as an undergraduate?
    Doing research as an undergraduate has been an integral part of my chemical education. I’m in the midst of applying to Ph.D. programs in physical chemistry, and perhaps the most important factor that those reviewing the applications consider is research experience. Dr. Laperle has encouraged us to take a leading role in preparing our work for publication. I was a co-author on our most recent paper, “Solvent Induced Structural Dynamics of Ruthenium Pentacarbonyl in Benzene,” (Elizabeth Lunny ’12 was first author), and I am currently working on a manuscript discussing this research project.
    What are your future goals?
    My goal is to obtain a Ph.D. in physical chemistry.
  • murphyphoto.jpgKevin Murphy ’12 (Franklin, Mass.), biology major

    Research project title: Programmed Cell Death in the Budding Yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Involves Calcium
    A description of Kevin’s research project
    My research focuses on the role of calcium in programmed cell death in the budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. I have been working on this project since my freshman year. Last year, two guys joined my team--Christian Selinski ’13 and Brendan Swan ’13. Christian helps me with one part of my project that looks at acetic acid induced programmed cell death. This is important because it has been well characterized that acetic acid is an inducer of cell death. This works to our advantage because we are able to induce cell death in a timely fashion and study the role of calcium in this process. Brendan Swan focuses on BAX-induced cell death and how calcium functions in this process. BAX is a protein found in humans that initiates cell death.
    How did you become interested in the subject matter?
    I enjoy science very much and realize that our research contributes to the overall knowledge that humans have about the way our cells undergo programmed cell death. The process of programmed cell death is important because certain cells must terminate at given points in order to ensure proper development. In cancer, cells do not undergo cell death; instead, they continue to proliferate. Understanding the mechanisms behind programmed cell death helps us to understand exactly how and why cells kill themselves when they do … or don’t for that matter!
    What are your future goals?
    I want to get a Ph.D. in the field of cellular and molecular biology. My particular interest is aging.
  • Zachary Sexton ’13 (Westerly, R.I.), biology major

    Research project title: Identification of SRNA Genes in the Dissimilatory Metal-Reducing Bacterium Shewanella oneidensis
    A description of Zachary’s project
    By using an algorithm, we have identified a number of sequences we dubbed ‘putative non-coding RNA,’ or PnR. We detected a large number of these potential RNA sequences, and my personal project is the identification of the targets of PnR1. These RNA strands are interesting because they are not coded for the production of protein. Rather, we believe they have a hand in the bacteria metabolism. We are most especially interested to see how these small RNAs affect the metal reduction function of the bacteria. So far, I’ve been working on this for about a year in Dr. Brett Pellock’s (assistant professor of biology) lab.
    What has the opportunity to conduct meaningful research meant to you as an undergraduate?
    This experience has been very enlightening. It has really informed me of proper scientific protocols and how the scientific community as a whole functions. It has forced me to think critically and scientifically and has given me the opportunity to develop a healthy respect for precision.
    What are your future goals?
    I am planning to be a high school science teacher. I’m pursuing a program that will allow me to spend two years teaching and then return to school for my master’s degree.
  • sokophoto.jpgMary Elizabeth (Liz) Sokolowski ’12 (Bow, N.H.), psychology major

    Research project title: A Novel Animal Model for the Exploration of Neurochemical Factors in NSSI
    A description of Liz’s project
    The purpose of this project is to develop a new animal model of stress to see how different stressors effect the animal’s sensation of pain. We incorporated environmental and physical stressors in the model to more accurately portray human stressors. I’ve been working on this project since the beginning of my junior year.
    How did you become interested in the subject matter?
    I took biopsychology with Dr. Christopher Bloom, assistant professor of psychology, and when I discovered his lab I quickly asked him if I could get involved. I think our work is interesting because NSSI (non-suicidal self injury) is such an exciting and under-researched topic. If our experiment continues to be successful, our novel model could be used to test drugs to treat individuals who participate in non-suicidal self injury as a way to deal with stress.
    What has the opportunity to conduct meaningful research meant to you as an undergraduate?
    I find this experience highly helpful, especially in my search for a future career. I’ve learned valuable laboratory techniques, and I have been able to gain experience working in a laboratory environment. This research is helping me develop my presentation skills and my ability to manage multiple tasks at once. It has also improved my understanding on neurochemical pathways and animal care. It has helped me challenge myself and taught me ways to manage school work and a job simultaneously.
    What are your future goals?
    After graduation, I would ideally like to find a job in a lab to gain more work experience. I then want to go back to school to get my master’s degree in an area of psychology.
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