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TO THE POINT:  High School/College Students engage in summer research through remote U.S. Army program

 

Led by Rutgers University‒Camden scientists

 

CAMDEN CITY— Makeda Smalls is spending the summer immersed in cutting-edge research in Jinglin Fu’s Rutgers University‒Camden chemistry lab that could lead to methods that can rapidly diagnose illnesses, including coronavirus.

“I have already learned so much new information in just this short amount of time, that it amazes me,” says Smalls, a Lindenwold resident. “Research as an undergraduate gives you real-world experience you don’t get in class.”

Smalls, a biochemistry major entering her senior year, is among seven Rutgers‒Camden undergraduates, two graduate students, and two high school students from Lincroft, N.J., and Stafford, Va., participating in the research sponsored by the U.S. Army Education Outreach Program.

During the 10-week program from June 15 to Aug. 31, the students are learning the fundamental technique of DNA hybridization design, a basic interaction between DNA bases to form the natural double-helical structure of DNA, as well as other non-natural DNA. Students design and evaluate DNA detection methods by computational simulation and prediction. Their computational result will be used to conduct experiments in the lab to validate their research.

“By carefully designing DNA hybridization structures, one can detect a unique sequence of viral genome for detecting the presence of virus targets,” says Fu.

When the COVID-19 lockdown went into effect, Fu found a creative solution using computational programs and online resources to allow students to conduct research virtually from their homes while continuing to connect and collaborate on a new virus detection process for diagnosing diseases such COVID-19 and cancer.

Before the pandemic, the DNA technology research was mainly conducted through experiments in Fu’s lab in the Joint Health Sciences Center in Camden, but in order to continue offering the summer research program, Fu pivoted, turning the program into a completely computational-based project.

Since the group is unable to meet in person, Fu stays in touch with the students during a daily WebEx session so the students can receive instructions, ask questions, and share what they are learning.

Ezry St. Iago-McRae, a Ph.D. candidate in computational and integrative biology at Rutgers–Camden and a graduate mentor in the summer DNA computational program, assists Fu in helping students design DNA sensors, perform simulations, and interpret results.

“Being able to conduct research has given me a chance to scratch the surface of research work in an environment where I feel that I can learn and grow” says Rutgers–Camden senior Anthony Monte Carlo of West Deptford, who plans to become a physician. “In the coming months I hope to dive even further into research, and a career in research is definitely something that I want to consider.”

Monte Carlo, a Maximizing Access to Research Careers – Undergraduate Student Training for Academic Research program (MARC U*STAR) fellow, has conducted research on pain with Nathan Fried, a Rutgers‒Camden assistant teaching professor of biology. While the Rutgers–Camden student is thrilled to participate in research as an undergraduate, he acknowledges there is a drawback to doing only virtual research.

“I miss conducting bench work in the lab,” Monte Carlo explains. “But I feel that the calculations and theory behind our research that I am currently working on is just as helpful to my understanding of our project. I think that once things open up again, I will be able to fully focus on learning the lab bench skills and developing a project of my own.”

Since 2015, the partnership between the U.S. Army Educational Outreach Program andRutgers University–Camden has provided students opportunities to conduct research with Rutgers‒Camden scholars.

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