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Six CCRI students dedicate summer to science

Sept. 15, 2014

CCRI student John Da Lomba and Assistant Professor Bruno Soffientino. CCRI student John Da Lomba and Assistant Professor Bruno Soffientino work to determine whether stress and diet affect the health of summer flounder as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships. Da Lomba was one of six CCRI students to participate in the program; Soffientino was his mentor.

In academic research, it's usually not until graduate school that students gain lab and field experience. But this summer, thanks to Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) with the Rhode Island IDeA Network for Biomedical Research (INBRE) and the Rhode Island NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), six Community College of Rhode Island students became the exceptions to the rule.

Students Joelle Bitar, Tyler Perry and Julia Suits were selected for the INBRE program out of 80 applicants, while John Da Lomba, Dillon Post and Jim Tempest were selected for the EPSCoR program out of a pool of more than 100 applicants.

The INBRE program is funded by the National Institute of Health and is more concerned with health-related elements of science – "so there's more interest in toxicology, cancer research, neuroscience, and so on – it's much more biomedical," said Jim Lemire, a professor at Roger Williams University who coordinates the EPSCoR side of the SURF program. The EPSCoR experiences are funded by the National Science Foundation, and "more concerned, thematically, with the general life sciences here, and we have a very strong marine biology component in this state," he added.

All students went through a competitive application process that pitted them against students from across the state for funding for the 10-week experience, which, in addition to giving them in-depth lab and field experience on their projects, gave them access to ample professional development opportunities on everything from poster design to field trips to local science industries.

"We aim to get students out of the ivory tower of academic research so that they can see what they're doing applied more broadly," explained Lemire.

Students said the program more than met expectations. Lemire and his INBRE coordinator counterpart, Jeffrey N. Ulricksen of the University of Rhode Island, both stressed that one of the key goals of the program is to expose undergraduate students to the kinds of experiences they could have as a graduate student in an academic research setting or, eventually, an academic themselves, as well as in the private sector. Several indicated that this was one of the most valuable components of the program, particularly given how long they are expected to devote to their training should they want to continue in the field.

Tyler Perry
Perry started taking the biotechnology certificate program last fall and is now working on also finishing an associate degree at the college. His involvement in the sciences represents a complete 180-degree turn from what he originally thought he'd be doing: teaching history.

"I got my bachelor's degree in humanities from Dartmouth College," he recalled, "but my roommates senior year were biomedicine and chemistry majors and, since we were close friends, I really started to become interested in what they were learning."

Perry said he thought his next move would be medical school, but wanted to get a look at what an academic research experience might look like. "I'm leaning toward pursuing a postbaccalaureate program to prep for medical school after CCRI," he said. "I lost my dad to an aneurysm and that sort of motivated me to consider science as more than a hobby, but instead something where I could reach out and make a difference to other people."

The SURF program was part of Perry's plan to gather information on whether medical school or graduate school might be a better fit for him. "I don't know if I'd like to be a researcher or more on the clinical side. I kind of want to combine the two, and the SURF program got me open to that," he said.

For his project, Perry worked with Dr. Aftab Ahmed at the URI College of Pharmacy, where they focused on the isolation, purification and characterization of water-soluble proteins found in ginger root. Perry said that the medicinal ramification of the ginger root, which has been used in folk medicines for its anti-inflammatory properties, was what interested him.

Julia Suits
Like Perry, Suits has an overarching interest in medicine and hopes to pursue the college's Nursing program. This summer during the INBRE program, Suits worked with Dr. Clinton Chichester at the URI College of Pharmacy, simulating opioid overdoses as well as the body's response to antidotes using high-fidelity patient simulation systems.

As all of her counterparts did, Suits presented on her topic – a timely one, as the state is experiencing an increase in opiate overdoses, she said – during the seventh annual SURF conference at URI in August.

"The conference went well; a lot of people asked me questions. I really liked how it all gave me an idea of what graduate research would be like and if I'd be interested in that field at all. I know a lot more about drugs and pharmacology now, and it actually got me thinking that maybe I should look into a career in pharmacy," she said.

Joelle Bitar
The final CCRI student in the INBRE program was Bitar, a chemical technology student who worked with Dr. Brenton DeBoef, who is also Lemire's counterpart for the RI-INBRE program, in the URI Chemistry Department. Bitar said she has been interested in chemistry since high school, but wanted to gain access to some experience in a laboratory setting before she graduates with her associate degree and begins to search for a job.

"Right off the bat, I could tell it was a good fit," she said of the INBRE program. "I loved going to work and that's always a good sign when you wake up in the morning and look forward to going in to work on your project."

Bitar and DeBoef were working on synthesizing molecules that have shown applications for treating Alzheimer's disease. The molecules can be purchased for great expense, and can be used to fight insulin insensitivity in a brain suffering from Alzheimer's. However, DeBoeuf discovered that the molecules could be synthesized in a lab setting.

"This is how medicines are made," said Bitar. "It was definitely something that opened my eyes and something I'd love to do in the future."

That, said Ulricksen, is precisely the point of these programs. "We're working toward training the next generation of scientists," he said. "It's very hard during the academic year for these students to gain full-time experience in the laboratory."

John Da Lomba
One student-teacher pair in particular got to continue their relationship beyond what was possible during the academic year: CCRI student Da Lomba and his teacher, Assistant Professor Bruno Soffientino, worked together in Soffientino's biology class last spring. The EPSCoR program allowed them to immerse themselves in the lab together over the summer, with Soffientino being selected as one of the program's mentors – a role he already had taken with Da Lomba during the semester.

"He saw the enthusiasm I had for biology and gave me some extra reading to do," Da Lomba said. "I want to learn as much as possible, because I believe knowledge is power, and with knowledge I can change the world."

Da Lomba, who hopes to continue his education in biology in the future, was inspired to pursue the sciences in this quest for knowledge. His father was diagnosed with diabetes when Da Lomba was 12 years old and Da Lomba, who previously was unaware of the causes and effects of the disease, started to research the illness.

Soffientino and Da Lomba spent the summer driven by this inquisitive spirit, working to see whether stress and diet affected the composition of intestinal mucus in the summer flounder. Soffientino described the overarching goal of the project as "trying to devise nutrition for aquaculture fish that is environmentally sustainable and economically viable," meaning that his research was looking at a particular diet and how it affected the fish's health. "It was a great satisfaction to be able to introduce somebody to this kind of experience," he said of Da Lomba.

Dillon Post
Post was another of Soffientino's biology students. His interest in biology and science came through his employment as a licensed arborist for the state, as well as his background growing up on a small horse farm. For his EPSCoR experience, he worked with Dr. Andrew Rhyne and his graduate student, Robert Holmberg, at UMass-Boston as they researched ocean acidification and its effect on fish.

"It all goes back to climate change," he said. "I really like the fact that I'm looking into a project that affects the real world and how we might go forward in the future monitoring our ecological footprint."

Post said the project was focused on how acidification affects the fish's internal structures, particularly the otolith – the ear stone. To study this, Post and his two counterparts from RWU, students Elizabeth Groover and Laura Anderson, helped raise larval clownfish in pH levels that matched what the ocean is predicted to be in future years.

"My involvement definitely finalized my decision that I wanted to stay in the sciences," he said. "This is the way that I want to contribute knowledge to our world."

Although Post had known from an early age that a scientific path was the one he wanted to walk, this isn't the case for all students, and the EPSCoR program helped one CCRI student in particular add to his skill set as he moves through a career transition.

Jim Tempest
Jim TempestTempest began taking classes in 2010 after working for 10 years as a tool and die maker when he realized that work was facing an evaporating trend. After earning his GED® credential, he enrolled in and completed CCRI's Biotechnology certificate program and is now working toward a Chemical Technology certificate as well as his associate degree in science.

For Tempest, the EPSCoR program was a chance to gain valuable experience in a chemistry lab, in this case, working with a state-of-the-art mass spectrometer at Brown University with URI professor Steven Irvine to analyze how temperature affects the regeneration of certain proteins inside tissue.

"It was a lot of hard work, but it was nothing out of my abilities that I learned from the Biotechnology program at CCRI. I pretty much jumped right in," he said, adding that the connections he formed in the program would be just as valuable as the laboratory experience going forward.

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Last Updated: 1/22/18