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K-State Today

October 5, 2015

Fanning the flames: The impact of undergraduate research

Submitted by Karen Burg

Dear faculty and staff,

The American Cancer Society expects 1,658,370 new cancer cases to be diagnosed in 2015. In a few years, Luke Kicklighter plans to be treating patients as an oncologist. Luke is now a junior in microbiology. He works in Sherry Fleming's lab in the Division of Biology, where he is applying a protein designed to combat the effects of the body's response to ischemia, or inadequate blood supply to an organ, to cancer treatment.

When blood flows back into a tissue after surgery or the heart after a heart attack, membranes are disrupted from the trauma and the immune system is provoked, which worsens the situation. The protein developed by researchers in Fleming's laboratory suppresses the body's immune response after surgery. Luke is hoping to find out if the protein has the same effect on tumor cell growth.

"You always hear about it," says Luke. "The big thing is, when are we going to find a cure for cancer?"

Luke was already interested in oncology when he arrived at K-State, but working in the lab has fueled his commitment to the field. Before working with Fleming, he worked in Annelise Nguyen's research group studying intercellular communication in treatment of certain breast cancers. These experiences have enriched his classroom experience and enhanced his problem-solving abilities.

"When you have the research outside the classroom, you can see the bigger picture and see how the information in class is applied. You don't sit in class and wonder, 'when will I ever need to know about this?'" he says. "You have to figure your way around a problem or answer the question by designing experiments."

Luke also is learning vital communications skills as a researcher. He often collaborates with others in the lab. He meets other researchers around the state, too, because his research position is funded through the Kansas IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, or K-INBRE, a program through the National Institutes of Health.

The program brings participants together for a yearly symposium and poster session so the researchers learn to explain their work. Luke knows this experience will help him be a better doctor, because he will be comfortable explaining complicated topics to patients and will understand the scientific mechanisms that influence a normal or disease state and, therefore, a diagnosis and treatment. What he may not realize is that it also will help him inspire the next generation of researchers.

Luke wants to remain involved in research until he graduates.

Just imagine what a great oncologist Luke will become and the impact he will have. This is the power of undergraduate research.

K-State has long recognized the value of undergraduate research. We formalized that recognition with establishment of the Office of Undergraduate Research & Creative Inquiry a year and a half ago. Director Anita Cortez worked tirelessly for more than 15 years to offer underrepresented, low-income and first-generation students the chance to work in labs.

If you talk to Anita about her experience, she will tell you that in the early years, she had to go from dean to dean to make the case for funds to support student researchers, and faculty would sometimes ask why they should have undergraduates work for them. Mindsets have changed, and now faculty members call Anita and ask for her help in pinpointing a student.

You have a vital role to play in supporting undergraduate research and creative inquiry. You can keep teaching and mentoring, of course, by hiring and training students in your labs or encouraging their creative efforts. But you also can help us reach our 2025 goal of enhancing undergraduate research by ensuring that undergraduate researchers enroll in the designated research courses in each college. This course will help us establish baseline data for undergraduate research participation. Enrolling in the course doesn't have to cost the students anything, because they can enroll for zero credit.

You also can show your support by attending SPARK Week events. Meet students and encourage them to push their boundaries by participating in research and creative inquiry of all types. Encourage them to step out of their comfort zones and experience different research areas.

You may inspire the next oncologist.


Karen J.L. Burg