Undergraduates conducting research in laboratories throughout the University of Rochester Medical Center are making their mark, collaborating with faculty and making unique contributions in areas such as physiology and biomedical sciences. Jamie Wagner, a visiting student from Oberlin College, is a testament to the advanced research performed by undergraduates at URMC: Wagner recently won the American Physiological Society’s Bruce Award for excellence in undergraduate research at the Experimental Biology meeting in Anaheim.
“In the right environment, with the appropriate resources, undergraduate students are performing high-level research. Jamie and other undergraduate students we’ve worked with have done some really remarkable things,” said Keith Nehrke, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Nephrology Division of the Department of Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “We’re very happy to support undergraduate research and hope we’re able to encourage more students to pursue careers in science.”
Wagner has worked in Nehrke’s lab for the past year and a half studying cell-to-cell communication. A student of Professor Maureen Peters at Oberlin College, a liberal arts school in Ohio, Wagner was able to travel to Nehrke’s lab at URMC through a Research in Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) grant Peters received from the National Science Foundation. Wagner was one of the first students to participate in this research exchange program, which allows students from liberal arts colleges and small universities access to world-class research facilities.
In her research at Oberlin and URMC Wagner identified a protein that was previously unrecognized for its ability to facilitate cell-to-cell communication. The protein was found using a genetic screen of a worm – C.elegans – whichis a widely used model organism that is ideal for undergraduate research due to its simplicity. Despite this simplicity, its cell biology is similar to that of humans and similar proteins to the one identified by Wagner are known to exist in mammals as well.
“The fact that Jamie’s work highlights a novel method for intercellular communication is a real plus,” said Nehrke. “Cells in the body don’t exist in isolation and they need to talk to one another to maintain systemic functions. The only way to recognize what types of health issues might arise from the loss of this ability to communicate relies on looking at a whole animal model. This is where C. elegans excels.”
Wagner was one of 24 finalists competing for the American Physiological Society’s David S. Bruce Award for excellence in undergraduate research. Wagner was interviewed by the award committee during a special undergraduate poster session at Experimental Biology 2010. Finalists were judged on the novelty of the research project, the creativity used in displaying and describing the research, and the overall quality of the poster and oral presentation. In addition to winning this prestigious award, Wagner and Peters are preparing a manuscript on the results.
"We are delighted that Jamie Wagner's outstanding work was recognized by the American Physiological Society. Her mentor at Rochester, Keith Nehrke, provided a nurturing yet rigorous intellectual environment which allowed this very talented undergraduate to flourish,” said David Bushinsky, M.D., Chief of the Nephrology Division at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “We in Nephrology are delighted to support undergraduate scholars with the hope that exposure to the intellectual excitement of cutting edge science will lead them toward a career in research."