Misericordia University students work alongside professors while gaining experience and searching for new knowledge in undergraduate research projects
Tucked immediately outside his office, Frank DiPino, Jr., Ph. D., professor of biology, has what he refers to as a “teaching laboratory.’’ It enables the students he mentors to gain an understanding of research methodologies and protocols while also exploring for the unknown as they conduct undergraduate research projects under his watchful eye. It features a collection of equipment, chemical compounds, supplies and other related materials.
“Students that join our research efforts learn current cutting-edge molecular cell biology and genetics methodologies, how to collect data, analyze experimental results, and draw conclusions and communicate their findings,’’ says Dr. DiPino, explaining how mentorship opportunities benefit students at Misericordia University. “Without question, these are valuable experiences that prepare students to go on to jobs, medical school and Ph. D. programs. They also experience the unique thrill of creating new knowledge and discovering something that has never been known before.’’
Biology major Rachel Bohn, for example, has been working on the “Mutagenesis Approach to Disrupt PAK2: A Protein Involved in Breast Cancer’’ project since it began in September 2013 on campus and at The Commonwealth Medical College (TCMC) in Scranton. One of two valedictorians for the Class of 2016, she has been engrossed in the exciting cancer research project with fellow undergraduate research scientists, as well as faculty mentors, Dr. DiPino and Jun Ling, Ph. D., assistant professor of molecular biology at TCMC. To watch a video about the value of mentorship at Misericordia University, type the shortcut, bit. ly/mumentorship, into your web browser.
Dr. DiPino and Bohn each have their own unique way of describing the complex scientific research that has been a large part of their lives since they began examining the PAK2 gene and its interconnectedness to breast and colon cancers. Dr. DiPino, a molecular cell biologist, compares their work to “turning a light switch off and on,’’ as they are focused on understanding how a “molecular switch’’ activates these deadly cancers. Bohn takes it a step further and uses the analogy of opening the hood of a car, cutting a wire, and later learning the brakes no longer work on the vehicle.
More precisely, though, Misericordia and TCMC researchers are engaged deeply in research that seeks to fully understand the autophosphorylation sites that regulate PAK2 and may cause it to lose proper regulation if it mutates, causing tumors and metastasis.
At Misericordia University and TCMC, Bohn and other students have cloned the human PAK2 gene –which plays a role in cell behavior such as cell division, migration and survival –and confirmed the gene by DNA sequencing. They now are utilizing bioinformatics technology and computer software to plan and outline the alteration of the gene, specifically in regard to designing primers. By mutating specific areas of the gene, researchers are working to understand which “molecular switch’’ in the protein encoded by the gene causes the cell to short circuit and eventually become cancerous.
“These sites might also be good drug targets for cancer therapies,’’ says Bohn, the daughter of Mark W. Bohn, M. D., and Donna Hudick Bohn, Pharm. D., of Mountain Top, “and this can be foundational research for drugs of the future.’’
“Science is slow and there are a lot more steps involved than people realize. When you say you are doing a procedure, like a site-directed mutagenesis, it’s a long, multi-step process,’’ explains Bohn, who received a full academic scholarship to TCMC beginning in the fall. “It’s science, so things do go wrong and you have to go back and repeat.
“It’s important to keep that goal in mind –that this is what we are working toward. When you have so many steps, it is easy to get lost in them, especially when you might have to repeat a procedure more than once. This research is going to go on long after I am gone and many people already have graduated from the project,’’ she adds.
Art of Discovery
At Misericordia University, Dr. DiPino is recognized for sharing his time and talent, as he believes the most important aspect of his job is the role he plays as mentor –inside and outside of the classroom.
Undergraduate students learn more than scientific procedures, protocols and new knowledge when conducting research with a faculty mentor –they unlock their potential. They learn how to work as a cohesive unit in a collaborative team, while also developing interpretation, personal, troubleshooting and creative-thinking skills along the way.
“It’s taught me to realize how things are interconnected,’’ Bohn says. “Our results are not necessarily ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ We have to interpret and analyze our results to see if they are consistent with what we expected and move onto the next step. When you are a physician, for example, you are the decision-maker. You are deciding upon a plan of care for that patient. It’ll be helpful to have the ability to think independently and consider all options.’’
Small School Feel
Even though Bohn’s mother is an alumna, she did not seriously consider attending Misericordia because of its intimate size –until she made her first official visit. The Crestwood High School graduate mistakenly believed she needed to attend a “big’’ school in order to realize her dream of attending medical school.
“I really loved it,’’ she says, recalling her first impression of Misericordia more than four years ago. “I felt at home here, and that’s really important to me. After I came here, I went to other schools and they did not compare. I didn’t know what I was looking for (when I was looking at colleges), but when I came here I saw it.’’
In the fall, Bohn will realize her dream of attending medical school when she participates in the annual White Coat Ceremony and becomes a member of the TCMC Class of 2020. In her acceptance letter, the medical school acknowledged the role her undergraduate research played in her being one of the members of the incoming class.
Bohn graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree and a 4.0 grade point average. She was one of two spring 2016 Class Valedictorians and addressed her fellow classmates and guests at Commencement.
Standing nearby in TCMC’s molecular biology laboratory as Bohn prepares a sample for testing, Dr. Ling offers high praise for his mentee and the mentoring process at Misericordia that eventually linked her to the region’s medical college as a sophomore.
“Rachel is an exceptionally dedicated young scientist,” Dr. Ling says. “From the very beginning, she impressed me with her scientific attitude. She is very organized and a quick learner –you only need to show her something once. Decisions and diagnosis need to be made on the spot –it is critical that one be organized for medical science.”
Having had the opportunity to work one-on-one with her in the lab, Dr. Ling calls Bohn a “thoughtful person,” who shows maturity in her ability to analyze and exercise critical thinking.
“When you put students’ problem-solving abilities to the test day after day, you can predict their career. Rachel is a natural leader and will make a wonderful doctor,” he opines.