(Pictured L-R: Venkata Sai Manda; Shona Joseph; Zara Khan; Lekha Mutyala (standing); Keerthi Thallapureddy; and Sam Batko. Not pictured: Syed Hussain)
Zara Khan was still in high school when she started volunteering at events directed toward raising money for cancer research. Just a few years later, Khan is on the other side of the spectrum as she conducts research experiments at NSU’s Rumbaugh-Goodwin Institute for Cancer Research (RGICR).
Khan, a senior biology major, is one of seven students in the Undergraduate Honors Program participating in research at the Plantation-based institute, which began offering undergraduate opportunities in 2008 under the leadership of executive director Appu Rathinavelu, Ph.D., associate dean at NSU’s College of Pharmacy.
“Now that I’m here, directly in the lab and doing experiments, it’s nice to see the other side of research and how it can directly affect patients’ lives,” said Khan, who plans to attend NSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in fall 2016. “It has been a very rewarding experience.
“If we are successful, what we are doing at the institute may lead to a new treatment or therapy down the line. Being part of this investigative process really means a lot to me. We see that this is one important step in the process toward really making a difference.”
Working in teams of two or three, the Honors students gain hands-on research training and experience working under the guidance and supervision of senior scientists, graduate students, and post-doctoral fellows.
Students engage in training that includes lab skills, techniques, and an understanding of the research process, including how to read and interpret literature published in previous studies. Each team is assigned to work on a project that is closely monitored by scientists who meet with students to discuss their progress.
In addition to Khan, Honors students and biology majors Sam Batko, Syed Hussain, Keerthi Thallapureddy, Shona Joseph, Lekha Mutyala, and Venkata Manda were part of the student research teams during the 2015 academic year.
“With NSU being a premier university in Florida, we provide this unique opportunity for our undergraduate students to do research, expand their knowledge base, and become well-rounded graduates,” said Rathinavelu, who meets with each student beforehand to assess “their understanding of what it takes to do research, how it can be applied, and how this experience can benefit them in the future.
“All of their work is in the lab,” Rathinavelu said. “They work as teams so they can help each other and reinforce their knowledge. Instead of one person struggling to find a solution to a problem, they work together. The focus is drug discovery, finding new therapeutics, new diagnostic methods.”
Sam Batko, a sophomore whose team is testing the effects of drug compounds on ovarian cancer cell lines, likes “being very hands-on and working with other people to solve a problem. We collaborate with each other. Everyone is very supportive. In the lab, we are learning new techniques, and that builds a basic foundation to improve our skill level.
“It’s definitely a great opportunity,” Batko said. “This is cancer research. If we are successful with our experimental findings, we could actually make a difference. That’s what drives me.”
Students have an opportunity to present and publish their work, an advantage if they later apply to residency and fellowship programs, Rathinavelu said. Several Honors students presented at NSU’s Undergraduate Student Symposium in April 2016. Khan also will present her work at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in New Orleans.
The RGICR accepts an average of 12 undergraduate students each year; most work there for two to four semesters as part of internships or independent study programs. Since 2008, about 70 students have participated in the undergraduate research program at the cancer research institute. Of those, about 60 to 70 percent have moved into professional degree programs such as medical, pharmacy, or dental schools. Others enter graduate or doctoral programs.
“Undergraduate students help in projects that are conducted to understand—for example—how cancers grow and what causes them to become more aggressive? What kind of treatments will be more effective? Drug resistance is seen in some types of cancer cell lines. How can we work on that resistance? A lot of them work with natural plant-derived products, which are tested for therapeutic potential,” Rathinavelu said.
“These are the kind of projects they do. These are small pieces that make up the big picture. Whatever knowledge they help us gain will help us eventually in finding new cures for cancer,” he said.
Keerthi Thallapureddy, a freshman in the Dual Admission Program for Osteopathic Medicine, is excited to be working on a team looking at potential treatments for ovarian cancer. “The work is a collaborative effort,” Thallapureddy said. “We work together as a team to complete a project.”
“I have gained experience and confidence in my abilities to learn and apply lab techniques,” said Syed Hussain, a junior. “I am no longer scared of failure or making mistakes, and I learn from each mistake I make.”
Lekha Mutyala, a sophomore who worked at the institute in the 2015 winter and fall semesters, said the experience “fast-forwarded me to what I would be doing in professional school.
“Having done this research in my undergraduate years prepared me for what lies ahead,” Mutyala said. “Reading literature pieces, analyzing them, writing, and researching also served as critical steps of the research process. I learned how to work with a partner by dividing certain tasks and writing sections of the literature paper we were asked to submit. And being critiqued at meetings by the staff members was an eye-opener about presentation skills and handling intensive questions on the spot.”
Rathinavelu hopes to expand the program when the institute moves into NSU’s new Center for Collaborative Research facility at the Fort Lauderdale/Davie campus, expected to open in 2016.
“There are many opportunities to attract a greater number of students in the new facility,” Rathinavelu said. “When I took over in 2007, there were only three other people apart from me. We are at the stage where we are ready for growth. Here, the students have greater opportunities for doing many different things.”
Said Khan: “It’s a great feeling when things go as planned. When things don’t go as expected, it’s even more interesting to use your problem-solving and investigative skills and modify the experiment, or go back to the literature, and figure out the root of the problem.”