Early Lab Experience Gives Science Majors Competitive Edge

As part of the Freshman Science Honors Program, qualified incoming freshmen are invited to start independent research during the second semester of their first year.
Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Whether an undergraduate student is applying to medical school, a doctoral program or a pharmaceutical company, recruiters often say putting “research experience” on a résumé sets a candidate apart from the rest. Through the Rider University Freshman Science Honors program, science majors are gaining valuable experience in the laboratory, and ultimately, a competitive edge in their desired career fields.

As part of the Freshman Science Honors Program, qualified incoming freshmen are invited to start independent research during the second semester of their first year. Students are selected based on their high school GPA (3.5 or higher) and SAT Math scores (600 or better). Participating students are paired with faculty mentors representing a range of scientific disciplines. The opportunity affords students a chance to gain hands-on experience and continue research through their senior year.

Dr. Kelly Bidle, coordinator of the Freshman Science Honors program and professor of Biology, said the honors program began in the Biology department about eight years ago and has expanded to include students majoring in most of the science programs offered at Rider.

“The opportunity to start in the lab so early in your undergraduate career is virtually unheard of at most large research institutions,” Bidle said. “We, as faculty, are really vested in our research. The honors program is a win-win for faculty and students. Students get research experience. We get a set of extra hands.”

In fact, Rider’s science faculty members have received about $1 million in active research grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation in the areas of immunology, developmental biology, neuroscience, environmental microbiology, and major research instrumentation. As a result, Rider science majors working in these research labs have had the opportunity to co-author research papers and present at national and international levels.

The majority of alumni of the Freshman Science Honors Program have continued their education by enrolling in master’s and doctoral degree programs. In the last few years, graduates have been accepted to such schools as the University of California San Francisco, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Delaware and Rutgers University.

Bidle said 20 freshmen were invited to attend sessions in the fall to learn about faculty research opportunities. This spring semester, nine honors students began working in the labs. The freshman fellows and their mentors include:

Nicole Colossi ’15, a Biology and Dance dual major, is involved in an ongoing project in the lab of Dr. Todd Weber, associate professor of Biology and Behavioral Neuroscience, which examines circadian rhythms in laboratory mice. Humans essentially have the same “clock” region that organizes physiology and behavior into daily rhythms, such as becoming tired at the same time at night and hungry at similar times each day.

“We’re studying a particular strain of laboratory mouse that seems to be able to resynchronize within the first day of a simulated six-hour time zone change in order to determine the limits and eventually figure out the mechanistic differences in its circadian system that allow it to do that,” Weber explained. “We hope that it may lead ultimately to treatments for circadian disruption in humans such as those associated with working night shifts, jobs that entail long trans-meridian travel and sleep disorders.”

Meanwhile, Kelley DePierri ’15, a Biology major, joined a group in Dr. Jim Riggs’ laboratory to further understand how the immune system is regulated during cancer.

“As tumors evolve, they develop mechanisms for turning off the immune response directed against them,” explained Riggs, professor of Biology. “We want to understand the mechanisms behind this regulation and hope to contribute knowledge as to how to turn the immune system back ‘on’ and fight the cancerous cells.”

Under the mentorship of Dr. Bruce Burnham, associate professor of Chemistry, Shirley He ’15, a Biochemistry major, will investigate the chemical synthesis of nucleoside analogs as potential antiviral or anticancer agents. She will be finding synthetic routes that will allow for the positioning of functional groups on the molecule for structure-activity relationship studies.

“Shirley will learn and apply techniques for the air-sensitive synthesis of organic compounds along with the instrumental analyses, such as NMR, IR and LC/MS, used to verify the structure and purity of the newly made compounds,” Burnham said.

In Bidle’s lab, Danielle Minichino ’15, a Behavioral Neuroscience major, is spending the semester learning the “toolkit” of molecular biology, including techniques such as PCR, cloning, and DNA sequencing. Once Minichino masters these techniques, she will begin working on an aspect of the circadian rhythm research being conducted in Bidle’s lab.

Jen Smolyn ’15, a Secondary Education and Biology dual major, is working on a project with    

Dr. Julie Drawbridge, professor of Biology, to determine which cells in developing frog embryos are making the growth factor GDNF. 

“We currently think that GDNF attracts cells of the newly formed kidney duct and, in so doing, helps the cells stay on the correct migration pathway,” Drawbridge said. “She will be staining embryos for GDNF and then sectioning them for microscopic analysis so that we can precisely determine GDNF's location throughout the process of kidney duct migration.”

In Dr. Alex Grushow’s lab, Morgan Kandrac ’15, a Chemistry major, is working on computational modeling of the relationship between pKa (a measure of the acidity of a molecule) and molecular orbital energies in small organic molecules.

Brandon Enalls ’15, a Biology major, is working with Dr. Bryan Spiegelberg, assistant professor of Chemistry. Enalls is investigating the biochemistry of “signal transduction” (What are the molecular mechanisms underlying the ability of cells to communicate?)  Enalls will develop biochemical assays to explore signaling through medically-important G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), and he will investigate how messenger G proteins influence cellular function.

“The results of those calculations will provide a connection between a physical property of a molecule and its overall reactivity,” explained Grushow, associate professor and chair of the Chemistry department.

Jaclyn Webber ’15, a Behavioral Neurosciences major, is working with Dr. Laura Hyatt, associate dean of Sciences, on a project measuring the changes in concentrations of garlic mustard chemicals in soils over time, focusing on how patterns differ in soils dominated by seedlings or by adults. 

“The relative concentrations of different compounds in these two kinds of populations are important because they influence how effectively garlic mustard, an exotic, invasive plant species suppresses the growth and survival of native plants,” Hyatt explained.

Laura Moritzen ’15, a Marine Sciences major, is working with Dr. Paul Jivoff, associate professor of Biology.

Back to Academics
Dr. Kelly Bidle, professor of Biology, works with Danielle Minichino ’15, a Behavioral Neuroscience major.