You may have heard somewhere that undergraduates don’t get to do medical research. Try telling that to these UIndy sciences standouts: Tess, Emily, Kristen, and Helen. The four are going to school full-time and have part-time jobs. Yet all are currently involved in their own research projects. Tess, Kristen, and Emily are all doing cancer research; Helen is engaged in brain research. Tess Walker, a junior biology major with a chemistry minor, is working on a project that’s closely related to what she hopes to do in the future. She’s trying to figure out how to prevent cancer cells from becoming resistant to drugs and treatments—one of the biggest problems with treating cancer today. The drug Tess is specifically looking at is Camptothecin. A previous UIndy undergrad had been successful in producing cells resistant to this drug. They were found to be hard to work with as a result of changes in their behavior and structure, which caused them to die easily.
“In order to figure out how to prevent this resistance, the cellular changes that cause the resistance need to be identified,” Tess explains. “Unfortunately, cancer cells are very unstable genetically, so it’s impossible to determine whether changes in the cells are due to resistance or genetic instability. My project involves creating more of these Camptothecin-resistant cells and properly documenting the changes they acquire. I’ll also attempt to fix these changes so that the cells are easier to work with and research on their resistant properties can continue.”
Kristen Coleman of New Castle, Indiana, and Emily Uhlenhake of Indianapolis have also been working on cancer research. They began by working alongside their biology professor, Dr. Mary Ritke, to gain experience in the field. Their project now deals primarily with leukemia cells that are resistant to the anti-cancer drug Etoposide. Many factors play into the cell’s resistance to treatment, but according to Emily, they are focusing on one cause specifically. “We are studying the promoter region of topoisomerase II, a protein important in DNA replication,” Emily says, “to see if we can find any clues as to how it is making these cells resistant.”
Studying brain cells
Helen Dainton, of Lowell, Indiana, a senior majoring in biology and psychology with a minor in chemistry, has a project focusing on the brain. She hopes one day to do clinical research on the physiology behind mental illnesses. And once she determined that basing her project on the most abundant type of cell in the brain, the glial cell, was doable, it was full-steam ahead.
“The first part involves reworking a method for growing animal cells on an egg white protein matrix,” Helen says of her project. “The second involves comparing how glial cells communicate by exchanging calcium ions in a monolayer (the normal culture technique) and the new egg white technique.”
While the researchers have different projects and objectives, they agree on one major thing: Dr. Ritke has been an invaluable resource. “Dr. Ritke has done years of research on this cell line,” Kristen says, “so she’s helped guide us as far as what tests to run and what to expect, and helps with a lot of troubleshooting. She’s been extremely helpful and encouraging throughout the process!”
Tess agrees. “I do not think that I could have executed this project without her guidance,” she says. “She has helped me plan what experiments I should be doing at what point in the project, provided me with specific experimental procedures, has personally walked me through several experiments, and helped me to acquire the materials I need to complete all of the experiments.”
And Dr. Ritke did more than just teach Helen about cell culture. Helen says, “I knew the technology existed but I didn’t know it would have been possible to do it in an undergraduate research lab.
“While I was working specifically on my project, she helped with technique development, getting resources, and tracking expenses. At the same time, she let me work independently, which I greatly appreciated. I was able to try out ideas and branch out with my abilities, so I feel more confident about taking on research in graduate school.”
The prof’s perspective
Dr. Ritke is equally enthusiastic. “I love working with undergraduates. They are usually new to the behind-the-scenes action that leads, eventually, to the information they accept as fact in textbooks.
“But when they get into the lab and start applying their textbook knowledge to a novel situation, I think they greatly appreciate the work it takes to gain knowledge by the scientific method, and they better understand why it takes so long for scientists to uncover new facts and understandings of the natural world.”
Dr. Ritke believes the hands-on experience is priceless. “When (undergraduates) realize the science is not exact, and that there are few facts—just ongoing and refined hypotheses—they are more likely to take risks and feel more confident expressing their own ideas about what’s going on with the systems they are studying. I think all full time scientists appreciate new ideas but initially students are not confident enough to express their ideas for fear of being wrong.”