Undergrads aid in hands-on research

By Joseph Altman Jr.

Arizona Daily Wildcat

What does worm sperm have to do with living longer?

Students participating in the Undergraduate Biology Research Program shared their attempts to explain this question and others like it Saturday when they displayed their months of research at UBRP's sixth annual conference.

Seventy-two separate projects were presented by students who have been working with faculty on their research since summer.

UBRP Director Carol Bender said the program is "an idea whose time has come." The program allows undergraduate students with any amount of science experience to work side-by-side with faculty on cutting edge research, she said.

One breakthrough involved the discovery that a molecule present in the sperm cells of Caenorhabditis elegans may be linked to the worm's life-span. Virgin worms were found to live longer than mated worms.

Although Seventeen magazine picked up the story recently, linking it to human males, research will continue to see if the effect is really similar in humans.

Mating worms, however, are not the only thing the students have been working on.

Patricia Baumann, a molecular and cellular biology senior, is researching the effect of glial cells on neurological patterns in the developing insect brain. Glial cells are found in the brain and they can function as "glue" for neuron patterns.

Baumann's research "confirms in our mind that glial cells are important," she said.

That research may lead to developments in human neurology as well.

Some of the other research taking place could lead to agricultural benefits as well.

Denise Krawitz, molecular and cellular biology senior, is investigating heat-shock proteins.

"Heat-shock proteins help keep other proteins in a correct functional state at high temperatures. So, if we find that this is true, it might be possible in the future to make a thermotolerant plant, or something that can withstand higher temperatures than normal," Krawitz said.

Other experiments at the conference might also lead to improved pesticides, or a better understanding of fetal alcohol syndrome.

Students in UBRP work full time during the summer in the lab of a faculty sponsor, Bender said. The sponsor pays half of a given student's salary while UBRP, with a $2 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, pays the other half. The same arrangement also pays for some of the students to do research in foreign countries.

Mike Wells, biochemistry department head, started UBRP in 1988 when it sponsored 19 students using funds from the department of biochemistry, Bender said.

"He (Wells) was in his building late one night and there was an undergraduate student who was majoring in biochemistry who walked by and said, 'What do you guys do around here?'" Bender said. "She thought she was missing out on something very exciting," so Wells started the program.

Bender said she expects about 140 students to participate this summer. Applications for this year's program are due Thursday at 4 p.m. Interested students can contact Bender at 621-9348 for information.

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