2013 SURF: Welcome to Science

-Written by Nathan Ahlgrim

Research as a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow (SURF) scholar has kept me in the same lab I have worked in for three years, but has thrown me into an entirely new role.

Nathan Ahlgrim Biology/Psychology Class of 2014

Nathan Ahlgrim
Class of 2014

I now attend every lab meeting, am left to construct my own experiments, and am expected to work independently.  Here in Dr. Glenn Matsushima’s lab, our efforts are focused on demyelination disorders of the central nervous system (CNS) like multiple sclerosis, and we attack the questions from many angles.  All that means is I have a lot of training to do.

I have been trained to be able to work independently through all aspect of data collection.  Since we work with a mouse model, I need treat and care for the mice, collect, prepare and label the brain tissue, and finally analyze the material.  I am indebted to Drs. Taylor and Puranam for training me in these countless procedures, and the process of gaining these new skills has highlighted one of the greatest characteristics of research science.  No one in our lab knows every procedure, and I myself have already instructed a post-doctoral scholar in a procedure I learned three weeks earlier.  In such a specialized field, knowledge and experience has to constantly be shared in order to be expanded.

Ahlgrim Figure 1

Staining of cells to show oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs)

Ahlgrim Figure 2

Staining of cells to show microglia

My efforts further understand demyelination disorders concern a gene called Pyk2 and its role in the glial cells of the CNS.  Myelin is the insulating fatty tissue around our neurons in the brain which allow for quick and effective signal transduction.  Without it, nerve impulses slow or fail.  Our experimental mouse model is a Pyk2 knockout, which means it does not have that gene, so we can study how those mice react to demyelination as compared to normal mice.  The Pyk2 protein acts in rearranging the cytoskeleton in a cell.  If the cytoskeleton rearranges properly, the cell can move appropriately.  Our hypothesis is that without this gene, key glial cells like microglia and oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) will not be able to migrate to damaged areas of the brain, worsening the effects of the disease.   A major tool in this will be immunohistochemistry, which selectively labels cells that express a specific protein.  As an example, the pictures show a staining of microglia (right) and OPCs (left).  Doing so over a time course of the disease allows us to understand the movement of different cell types and how their presence or absence affects the end result of demyelination.  This information will tell us more about the ways in which the CNS helps and hampers itself in demyelination disorders.

I have only just begun my work as a SURF scholar, and I am all but certain my project will not be complete with the closing of the summer.  However, the preliminary data and early collection stages are promising, and I have my mentors’ guidance to help me through this long and complex process.  Yes, my project requires many late nights and weekend hours, but as my supervisors have told me, ‘welcome to science.’



At the AACR: Attending a Scientific Meeting

Written by Patrick Short, OUR Ambassador, Applied Mathematics and Quantitative Biology major

I had the unique opportunity to attend the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting in Washington D.C. in early April as a part of the Thomas J. Bardos Program for Undergraduates.  The program is structured to provide the opportunity to attend two consecutive annual meetings for undergraduates interested in a career in research, particularly those interested in working in cancer research.  Walking into my very first session of the long weekend I witnessed one of the most impressive speaking feats I have seen to this day.  Dr. Donald S. Coffey, a researcher in Oncology, Urology, and Pharmacology at Johns Hopkins University, gave the entire history of cancer research in just under twenty minutes.  His delivery included dozens of creative metaphors, sparing a lot of detail to get to the root of the issues.  Dr. Coffey described the cell cycle as a Xerox machine, the phenomenon of transposons and genetic repeats as Indian Corn (in contrast to a non-aberrant genome, which he asserts is much more like yellow corn), even the early distinction between benign tumors which he described as “like a tangerine you can just pluck out” and malignant tumors which were messy, asymmetric, and look like crabs, hence the etymology of ‘cancer’ from the Greek for crab.Patrick Short aacr_photo

Dr. Coffey’s presentation was a perfect case study in the art of explaining what could undoubtedly be extremely technical and opaque science in an interesting an accessible way.  In addition, the colorful metaphors provided a bird’s eye view of the complexity in cancer research without getting too entrenched in the details.  This speech was a perfect primer for what lay ahead.  The AACR annual meeting is meant to be broad in scope with topics ranging from imaging to experimental therapeutics to advances in genetics and personalized medicine, as well as providing depth through poster presentations and breakout sessions.  While personalized medicine is my main area of personal interest, the meeting provided ample opportunities to get exposure to virtually all of the topics relevant to cancer.  With nearly 18,000 researchers from around the globe in attendance, there were sessions with attendance in the thousands, all the way down to more intimate ‘meet and greet’ sessions with attendance in the dozens.  This program is one example of the many available opportunities for undergraduates to get involved in research.  Many scientific meetings like the AACR Annual Meeting provide these sorts of opportunities for undergraduates to present original research in poster sessions as well as network with leading scientists in the field.  For students in science and engineering, the scientific research society Sigma Xi hosts a biannual event in RTP for students to present research, explore summer internship opportunities, and network with professionals in the field.  Here are other resources for opportunities for undergraduate presentation or journal publication.

Undergraduate Presentation Opportunities:

List of Undergraduate Journals:

The Celebration of Undergraduate Research and Other Events to Highlight Undergraduate Research

Here in the Office for Undergraduate Research we are busy gearing up for the annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research which will be held on Monday, April 15 as part of National Undergraduate Research Week. If you are planning to present at the Celebration, the deadline to submit your abstract is March 25.

We are fortunate to have additional events taking place on campus in March/April that highlight undergraduate researchers at Carolina. Please join us at the Celebration and also take advantage of these other opportunities to support other students and learn about the wide range of research being conducted by Carolina undergrads:

Undergraduate Research Honors Symposium in Biology with Undergraduate Speakers
Research posters and talks presented by undergraduates. Open to the public.
Date and Time:March 22, 2013, 8:00 AM – 5:15 PM
Poster session in Coker Lobby Noon – 1 PM
Location: Room 215, Coker Hall

Candidates for Biology Honors degree must present and defend their thesis research during the John K. Koeppe Biology Undergraduate Research Symposium. For more information, contact Summer Montgomery [sundance@unc.edu].

PIT Journal conference
Thursday, March 28, 2013
9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
FPG Student Union 3409/3411


Students from several ENGL105 courses will present the results of their research. The keynote address will be given by two Office for Undergraduate Research Ambassadors, Mattis Hennings and Keia Faison. For more information, contact Doreen Thierauf [thierauf@unc.edu].








The UNC Curriculum for the Environment and Ecology presents:
The First Annual CEE Student Research Symposium
Saturday, March 23, 2013
9:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.
North Carolina Botanical Garden



Lunch and light refreshments provided.  For more information, contact Dennis Tarasi [tarasi@live.unc.edu].









Student Organization for Undergraduate Literature (S.O.U.L) presents:
Friday, April 12, 2013
12:00 – 5:00 p.m.
Donovan Lounge, Greenlaw Hall

Join the Department of English and Comparative Literature and hear from several panels of undergraduate researchers. The event will kick off with a student panel offering “survival tips” for the ENGL and CMPL major. For more information, contact Dr. Hilary Lithgow [lithgow@email.unc.edu].

Asian Studies Senior Honors Colloquium
Thursday, April 18, 2013
6:00 – 9:00 p.m.
New West 219

Our hardest-working soon-to-be graduates will present at our annual Senior Honors Colloquium. These brief but fascinating glimpses into their honors research will be a lot of fun.  Don’t miss it. For more information, contact Dr. Nadia Yaqub [yaqub@email.unc.edu].

Department of Art Undergraduate Honors Symposium
Friday, April 26, 2013
12:30-3:00 p.m.
Location: TBA

The undergraduate honors scholars will be giving presentations of their work from 12:30-3:00. Afterwards there will be a dessert reception celebrating the opening of the Senior Honors Exhibition in the Allcott Gallery of Hanes Art Center. For more information, contact Honors Advisor Tania String at tcstring@email.unc.edu.