Young Scholars Pursue Hands-On Research in Qualcomm Institute Summer Program

San Diego, Calif., June 26, 2013 – Over the course of 10 weeks this summer, 28 undergraduates scattered across the arts and sciences will work full-time under a chosen advisor to pursue a hands-on research project as part of the Qualcomm Institute’s long-standing Summer Undergraduate Research Program. 

“We receive a lot of interest from students who are eager to pursue careers in academic research, but aren't sure if this path is right for them,” says the program’s Outreach Manager, Lovella Cacho. “The ‘Summer Scholars’ who are selected for the program get the opportunity to be exposed to the unique interdisciplinary environment at Qualcomm Institute that is becoming the standard for all research endeavors.”

This year, the program has also launched a pilot initiative that allows high school juniors from local underrepresented communities to gain hands-on experience alongside the undergraduate scholars. The students hail from Gompers and Lincoln High Schools, as well as the Preuss School. 

Johanna Fleischman,
Johanna Fleischman

“These high schools are now part of the UCSD "Blue and Gold Plan", which works to ensure accessibility and affordability for local students,” notes Qualcomm Institute Director Ramesh Rao. “We hope to further stimulate student interest through early exposure to research opportunities. In partnership with Center for Research on Education Equity, Assessment & Teaching Excellence (CREATE), we are also undertaking a systematic study of the impact of the program on student outcomes.”

Adds Cacho: “This is an exciting expansion for the program, and we hope that with its success we can begin a new phase of providing a more enriching research experience for the undergrad scholars and broadening Qualcomm Institute's educational outreach efforts.”

The Summer Scholars receive a $3,000 scholarship to take part in the program, which to date has had more than 500 undergraduate participants.  In order to be accepted into the program, students wrote a research proposal describing how their work combines technology, telecommunications and other disciplines to improve quality of life.

Students who are accepted into the program not only pursue their research interests, but also learn how to  prepare for their careers. Students attend seminars on how to apply to graduate school, learn more about the types of careers available in their field, and learn how to effectively explain their data in a presentation format. The opportunity to present their research is especially appealing to these young, motivated scholars. 

Controlling diabetes through genetically altered insulin-producing cells

Johanna Fleischman, a first-year bioengineering major, joined the Summer Scholars program not only to work in a lab full-time but also to learn how to present her findings to other students in the program. She is particularly interested in genetic engineering and drug delivery systems for diabetes therapies. As a Type I diabetic, her research project in Prof. Todd Coleman’s Bioengineering Lab has a personal appeal.

Coleman and his students are developing methods to regulate biological processes (in this case, the delivery of insulin) using thin, flexible, wireless opto-electronics that incorporate light-emitting diodes (LEDs).  When the LED is shined on the skin, genetically engineered cells in the body react and regulate insulin. Under the guidance of Prof. Coleman, Fleischman will work closely with graduate students and postdoctoral scholars to learn quantitative modeling processes to optimize the interaction between light and biological processes.

The researchers developed these skin electronics as a means of monitoring health conditions in a wireless setting. Patients benefit from the lack of cables and wires, which can be cumbersome to use, and the system might eventually eliminate diabetic patients' need for needles and bulky insulin pumps.

Rebecca Stanhope
Rebecca Stanhope

Evolving resistance to malaria

Another student who joined the Summer Scholars program in order to learn research presentation skills is fourth-year microbiology major Rebecca Stanhope. “(Presenting my research) is something that I have not done yet and would like to do,” Stanhope says. 

Stanhope joined Prof. Elizabeth Winzler’s lab in February of this year because the lab strongly focuses on genetics, which piqued her interest. The Winzler lab uses methodologies that analyze an organism’s genome (or entire genetic code) to identify genes that confer resistance to tropical diseases, specifically malaria. 

Malaria affects millions of people around the world, and drug resistance to malaria is a major problem. Using chemical, genetic, genomic, and high-content screening approaches — which analyze changes in a cell, such as shape or size, in response to various stimuli — researchers in the Winzler lab are on the hunt for different treatment therapies for malaria.

“My project,” explains Stanhope, “is to identify drug targets of anti-malarial compounds using whole-genome sequencing.” Whole-genome sequencing is a widely used technique that determines the entire DNA sequence of an organism.  Using yeast as a model system, Stanhope compares the genome sequences of a mutant yeast strain with a normal strain in order to determine the genes involved in drug resistance.. 

Drug resistance is measured in the yeast by observing if they can grow in high concentrations of the drug. If the yeast grow under these conditions, then the strain is resistant.

“The goal is to find out whether genes are conserved in malaria,”  says Stanhope. Yeast and malaria are both organisms called eukaryotes, and both share similar cellular structures. If the genes that she identifies in the yeast genome are also found in the malaria genome, then a possible drug target can be tested. Understanding how these compounds work in malaria is key for the development of more effective drugs.

Stanhope’s data will be analyzed at the UC San Diego San Diego Supercomputer Center, and she says she’s excited for the opportunity to use technology in her research this summer. When asked about the impact of her work, she says that it will lead to “an easier way to screen drugs for malaria, which will help people with a disease that kills a lot of people.” She notes that she plans to pursue a graduate school program in Immunology.

Cancer drug delivery via engineered bacteria

Ellixis Julio
Ellixis Julio

Another student examining the effects of drug delivery on cells is Ellixis Julio, a third-year bioengineering student in Prof. Jeff Hasty’s laboratory. The Hasty lab incorporates employs synthetic biology techniques in its research, which equip cells with synthetic gene circuits. By analyzing these circuits, which are similar to electrical circuits and mimic natural gene networks, the researchers can determine how the cell functions in response to various environmental changes and get a better understanding of how cancer drugs, in particular, might be delivered more effectively.

Julio’s role this summer is to construct small DNA molecules called plasmids and then examine how these plasmids interact with bacteria to form a multi-species drug release system. To construct the plasmids, Julio will use recombinant DNA techniques such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and restriction cloning, which amplify specific regions of DNA. He will then combine the plasmids with communities of Escherichia coli and Salmonella typhimurium bacteria on a small microfluidics chip, which is a controlled environment where Julio can regulate the nutrients the bacteria receive. The bacteria are also genetically engineered to fluoresce (light up), which allows them to be visualized and quantified over time. 

Explains Julio: “Our bacteria work in such a way that they release the drugs at certain intervals, and they tend to crowd cancer cells naturally. This behavior may allow for specific control of the timing and dosage of the drug release.”

All participants in the Qualcomm Institute Undergraduate Summer Scholar Program will display the results of their research efforts at a poster session Wednesday, Sept. 19 at 2:00 p.m. in the Atkinson Hall Pre-Function Area on the first floor. The event is free and open to the public.

Story written by Christine Gould

by Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu

Media Contacts

 Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu

Related Links

 Summer Undergraduate Research Scholars Program