Sometimes, it’s OK to spend the summer indoors.
For the one to two undergraduate students chosen each year for a Lancaster-McDougall Award, devoting a summer to scholarship is a luxury. As one past recipient wrote, “It allowed me to devote my time to research without needing a part-time job.” A summer job pays the bills — but a summer of research paves the way to graduate programs and fruitful careers.
Like that of Wayne Lancaster ’69, a professor in Wayne State University’s Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics. He and his wife, Lucy Grégoire, felt so strongly that student research is the key to future success that in 2010 they created a sustainable scholarship endowment to fund an undergraduate research award in biology. It is named after Lancaster and his mentor, the late Kenneth McDougall, who served as Lancaster’s master’s thesis adviser.
Such opportunities are what set the UD biology curriculum apart, says Mark Nielsen, department chair. “A unique strength of ours is our ability to get undergraduates involved in research. At larger institutions, they simply don’t have the room in their laboratories; at smaller schools, they don’t have the resources. Our faculty really depend on students to help further their research,” he said.
The emphasis on student-driven study starts with their Lancaster-McDougall application. The process is competitive, with students drafting their formal grant proposals in National Institutes of Health — the foremost funding agency for biomedical research — format. They identify a faculty mentor who will support them in the lab. And they tackle real problems that others need answers to.
“No one’s giving money away,” Nielsen explained. “It’s important that students learn how to earn money for their research and explain what it’s for. When you’re spending other’s money, you better have a hard, solid idea in mind, and be able to make it interesting.”
May 2014 biology graduate Georgios Tsissios’ solid idea involved softer surfaces. After attending a tissue regeneration seminar given by Panagiotis Tsonis, director of the University’s Center for Tissue Regeneration and Engineering, Tsissios became a molecular biology devotee. In summer 2013, a Lancaster-McDougall Award allowed him to experiment on the newt, an organism capable of regenerating an entire organ.
“Why do newts have this tremendous capability to regenerate part of their bodies, when other animals don’t? If we figure out the why, maybe one day we can apply this principle to other animals including humans,” Tsissios explained.
Tsissios, like many other Lancaster-McDougall graduates, says the summer research was just a beginning. He returned to UD this fall as a doctoral candidate in biology, where he will join Tsonis in his laboratory.
“At the very moment that I stepped in the laboratory, something changed inside me,” Tsissios said. “More than ever, I was sure that this is the discipline that best suits my ambitions. For the first time, I had to create my own experiment and hypothesis. I never felt more alive in all of my academic years than this time. Without this experience, I would probably have chosen a different career path.”
Michael Moran ’14 (at left, right), a 2012 Lancaster-McDougall recipient, is pursuing a master’s in immunology on his way to medical school, a plan spurred only after he worked on a project examining specific genes in eye development and their effect on Alzheimer’s disease.
Lauren Shewhart ’14 (at left, left) arrived at UD undecided on a major — and left as a mentor for other biology undergradutes. “The honor of winning this award gave me confidence that what I’m doing, other people care about,” she said.
Brittany Demmitt ’11 won a Lancaster-McDougall Award to study the impact of nanoparticles on the gut microbial community, a current hot topic in finding solutions to conditions that don’t have a clear genetic basis, such as diabetes, autism and multiple sclerosis. Today, she continues this research as a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder.
That’s the beauty of research, Nielsen says. Answering the question isn’t the the end; it’s a jumping off point to keep discovering.