A Showcase of Outstanding Research

Wednesday, May 7, 2014
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Erica Braisley presenting at the COLSA URCErica Braisley presenting at the COLSA URC.


The day Erica Brasley ‘14 arrived on campus for freshman orientation, the University of New Hampshire (UNH) announced a new major in Neuroscience and Behavior. The multidisciplinary program draws from the expertise of faculty in both the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA) and the College of Liberal Arts (COLA) to provide students with an opportunity for hands-on research in animal physiology, cognition, and behavior. For Brasley, that serendipitous event ushered in important experiences with undergraduate research. Over the following few years, Brasley delved deep into the Department of Biological Sciences major at COLSA to prepare herself for the next steps in ultimately becoming a doctor, who will be actively involved with research, in one of the fastest growing scientific fields in the world.

A McNair scholar, Brasley began working on brain research alongside Professor of Psychology Robert Mair during the summer of her junior year. Brasley appreciates the challenges her mentor presents in asking her to figure out the answers for herself. “Dr. Mair motivates me to be independent,” says Brasley. “I’ve had the opportunity to help him with technological developments and change the way we work with histograms.”

During the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture’s (COLSA) 23rd Annual Undergraduate Research Conference at the University, Brasley presented the lab’s research on Memory Coding Properties of Central Thalamic Neurons: Relationship to Prefrontal Neuronal Coding.  She attributes her newly acquired leadership qualities to the experience of working independently, with guidance, in the Mair lab. Says Brasley, “Dr. Mair trusted me to do the work, and that generated my confidence.”

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Lisa MacFarlane, addressed the audience prior to Brasley’s presentation, noting that UNH has one of the largest and most diverse undergraduate research conferences in the country. “We believe in the power of faculty and students working side-by-side in the lab,” says MacFarlane, emphasizing the hallmark of a UNH education.

COLSA initiated the Undergraduate Research Conference two years before the University followed suit. During the April conference, the Dean of COLSA, Jon Wraith, expressed gratitude for the committee, which worked tirelessly to make this year’s program a success, and for the friends of the college, whose gifts provide students with unparalleled opportunities for experiential research. “The hands-on learning at COLSA prepares our students well, whether they’re planning to continue their education or begin a fulfilling career,” says Wraith. “Engaging in undergraduate research will serve them well for the rest of their lives.”

Thomas Laue, Dzemila Mazic, and Kadina MazicThomas Laue, Dzemila Mazic, and Kadina Mazic


One such student, Kadina Mazic ’14 has been working in Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Biomedical Sciences Thomas Laue’s lab for the past three years. “I’m passionate about monoclonal antibodies and proteins in general,” says Mazic, a Biochemistry, Molecular and Cellular Biology major. “Dr. Laue opened my world into the biotech industry, showing me the importance of charge in the formulation of drugs.” Mazic presented her research on the Effect of pH on the Charge of Monoclonal Antibodies and discussed the value of hands-on learning at UNH. “The resources here are truly great, and I am someone who learns more while doing research,” she says. Mazic, who originally chose UNH so that she could save money by living at home with her family in Manchester, is happy about her choice to attend the University. “UNH was the best financial option, and I wound up falling in love with it as well,” says Mazic.

Like Wraith, Laue takes great pride in the educational and professional success of his students. “They’re like your children,” he says. “You watch them grow from bewildered freshman who gain so much confidence and insight into what they want to do in the future.” Laue is especially proud of Mazic, who has worked with him in selecting monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) that improve the chances of success in biotechnology. “Our research has helped eliminate poor choices before money is spent,” says Laue about the real-world applications of his lab’s research in saving millions of dollars that could otherwise be wasted during the development of an unsuccessful drug.

The chair of this spring’s COLSA Undergraduate Research Conference was Professor of Plant Biology and Genetics Subhash Minocha. As chair, Minocha welcomed the audience and spoke of the importance of maintaining scientific integrity as science and technology continue to advance at breakneck speed. His advice to students included the following three suggestions: 1) When doing research, run wherever you are going. Science is competitive, and one cannot move slowly in making strides. 2) If you see something in the lab that needs to be done, just do it. Professors remember the students who take care of the lab because it shows a commitment beyond doing one’s own work. 3) Do the best you can to the best of your ability.

Minocha’s influence has wide-ranging impact, but is also felt deeply at the personal level. Biochemistry, Molecular and Cellular Biology major Patricia Akrivoulis ’15 considers him to be one of her greatest mentors at the University. “Subhash is a joy,” says Akrivoulis. “He challenges me to view things from different perspectives, and understand why something may not have worked by helping me retrace my steps to uncover the error.” Akrivoulis is the first budding scientist in her family, so her parents don’t always follow when she talks about how she’s learned how to run a gel, isolate plasmids, and do bacterial transformations using heat shock. But her father, an engineer who showed her how to fix something when it was broken, has been an important influence. “I am doing the same things he does, only with science,” she says.

When she was a first year student, Akrivoulis discovered her love of bacteria in a Freshman biology course, and has actively researched them ever since. During the conference, Akrivoulis presented her research, conducted with fellow student Steven Troy, on the Effects of Gold and Silica Nanoparticles on Horizontal Gene Transfer in Escherichia coli. “This hands-on research has been so exciting,” says Akrivoulis, “and it’s taught me a lot about how to use new techniques in the lab.”

Getting an early start on lab work, Cody FitzGerald ‘16 secured an internship with Associate Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Biomedical Sciences Vaughn Cooper while still in high school. FitzGerald had come to UNH for a research symposium and been impressed with the scientist’s speech during the event. Today, with a double major in Math and Genetics, FitzGerald works alongside his mentor to better understand a cystic fibrosis pathogen through the evaluation its genetic mechanisms of change and related phenotypes. “It’s a demanding, challenging environment,” says FitzGerald about the Cooper lab, noting how much he’s grown through assisting with research on the mucoid project over the past two years.

During the Undergraduate Research Conference, FitzGerald presented his research on Mutational Mechanisms of Evolution of Mucoid Types from Burkholderia Small Colony Variants. The Somersworth, NH, native knows that his proclivity for mathematics has enabled him to grasp complex computer science-based analyses of genomic sequencing and he appreciated the ample opportunity for growth in Cooper’s lab. This summer, FitzGerald will attend the North Carolina State University’s Research Experience for Undergraduates in Mathematics: Modeling and Industrial Applied Mathematics, and looks forward to contributing his newfound knowledge to the ongoing research in the Cooper lab next fall.

Kendall Milkey ‘14, also drawn to the undergraduate research opportunities at UNH, is a transfer student majoring in Biomedical Science. During the Undergraduate Research Conference, Milkey presented her work—based on conducting research with fellow student Megan Thompson—on the Characterization of the srs-1 and srs-2 Root-Skewing Mutants of Arabidopsis thaliana during the Undergraduate Research Conference.

Milkey works alongside Associate Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Biomedical Sciences Estelle Hrabak, and is responsible for presenting her research findings during weekly lab meetings. “The hands-on, exploratory nature of conducting research in the lab employs critical thinking,” says Milkey who is considering pursuing graduate school for veterinary medicine. Through her experiences in Hrabak’s lab, Milkey feels prepared for her summer work as an equine veterinary technician. “Lab research keeps you on your toes,” she says. “You have to work with the results you get and consider where to go next to generate a solution.” The Temple, NH, native appreciates the fact that Hrabak provides ample opportunity for individual responsibility while always being available to answer questions.

Student describing her researchThe aforementioned students joined 85 of their COLSA peers at the poster session held in Huddleston Hall after the morning’s oral presentations. These exceptional students had the opportunity to discuss their research with the University community and beyond on topics ranging from hummingbird species diversity and habitat transformation to the presence of hemolysin genes in pathogenic Vibrio parahaemolyticus. Such opportunities are an important part of the process in effectively communicating research findings to the public.

The 23rd COLSA Undergraduate Research Conference was generously supported by the college, the Provost’s office, and the Hamel Center for Undergraduate Research, and benefited from the invaluable guidance of members of the 2013-2014 COLSA Undergraduate Research Conference Committee. The students and faculty alike expressed gratitude for the instrumental assistance from Pamela Wildes, Administrative Assistant for the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Biomedical Sciences, and Lynne Cooper, the Chair of the UNH Undergraduate Research Conference Planning Committee.