10 Weeks, and Research Gets Under Your Skin

October 2015

Two undergraduates develop unexpected interest in skin research through a summer research program at Duke.

Alex Guevara faced a steep learning curve last May when it came to independently conducting assays to determine how much wasp venom was needed to inhibit the growth of common skin bacteria such as e-coli.

“I had the pipetting experience from previous summer internships, so filling the 96 well trays wasn’t the problem,” says Guevara, a sophomore at Duke majoring in biophysics. “But I didn’t realize how complicated the math would be to calculate all the concentrations.”

Thanks to intense mentoring in the lab of Soman Abraham, PhD, professor of Pathology, Guevara successfully scaled that learning curve. Ten weeks later, on July 28, he stood proudly in front of a poster at the Pinnell Center Research Symposium, explaining the results of his summer’s work.

Guevara was one of two undergraduate students participating in this year’s SDRC Undergraduate Summer Mentored Research Fellowship program. Heather Larson, a Fayetteville State University student, was also part of the program.

Working in the lab of Amanda MacLeod, MD, assistant professor of dermatology, Larson grew cell cultures and used immunofluorescence staining to study how the skin repairs itself after being damaged by ultraviolet light. Larson also presented a poster at the July 28 research symposium, and will present again in November during the 2015 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Seattle, Washington.

The Pinnell Center for Investigative Dermatology launched in 2014 with the vision of expanding the workforce committed to improving the health of patients with skin disease through basic, translational, and clinical research programs.

“The summer mentored research program for undergraduates is a key element of our long-term strategy,” says Russell Hall, director of the Pinnell Center.  “We can offer students the chance to understand the challenges of research and appreciate the rewards of presenting their data to excited colleagues.”

The program offers a $4,000 stipend, housing on campus, and additional funds for the mentor’s laboratory to support research. Rising sophomores through seniors from any university in the U.S. may participate.

Larson said she loved being in the lab from nine to five (and sometimes longer). But the highlight of the summer was the chance to mingle with other researchers.

“We made connections with professionals and peers, and we attended weekly seminars where faculty discussed their life experiences and the road that led them to science,” she said. “It was exciting to build relationships while also learning about the research.”

MacLeod, who mentored Larson, said it is wonderful to see the learning that can happen during such an intense internship.

“It is wonderful to observe a student grow and mature scientifically and personally in just 10 weeks,” she says. “I am looking forward to seeing where the students we mentor will go, and where the science will take them.”

Guevara admits that the most surprising part of the summer was how the research got under his skin (so to speak).

“I initially was drawn to the program because it was translational – working on something that I could see being used in medicine in the near future,” he said. “I was not expecting that I would get so excited about immunology and pathology. It was really nice to be the expert on my own project as I was surrounded by folks who are experts in their own field.”

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