West Virginia University and Marshall University fans may cheer only for their own team when gridiron glory is at stake, but when both universities meet over research, it’s all about West Virginia.
Ten years ago, the two universities began a partnership through the IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, a program funded by the National Institutes of Health. Together, they have distributed grant funding in excess of $3 million a year to biomedical research projects at their own universities and 15 smaller universities and colleges throughout the state.
While faculty work on these funded projects throughout the year, undergraduate students from as far away as Bluefield State College and Shepherd University research during the summer at WVU and Marshall.
On Thursday (July 29), 36 college students from West Virginia schools other than WVU and Marshall presented the results of their summer-long research at a symposium along with other researchers.
WV-INBRE Principal Investigator Dr. Gary O. Rankin, chair of Marshall’s Department of Pharmacology, Physiology and Toxicology, walked through the rows of research posters at the Erickson Alumni Center on WVU’s campus and questioned students about their research.
He was impressed, but he says he always is when he sees the results of the students’ exploration.
“I think every time we have one of these meetings I’m particularly impressed with the quality of the presentations by the students and the interesting projects they have going on,” he said.
At the beginning of the day, Rankin told the students that what they’d learned this summer would have far-reaching effects on them.
“The research you’re doing this summer is something that may actually form the basis for you getting a job interview or maybe even getting into a professional school later on,” he told them.
Dr. Gary Rankin talks about the benefits of this biomedical research program to West Virginia.
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But this summer program and the ongoing research wouldn’t be as rich if West Virginia’s major research institutions didn’t band together in what Rankin calls a gem of a program for West Virginia. While Marshall brings a strong genomics background, WVU brings a breadth of organizational resources that are particularly helpful in providing the summer research program, Rankin said.
“This is actually a model for how the two universities can cooperate,” Rankin said. “It’s not competitive. It’s cooperative.”
“It’s taken a few years for everyone to learn to work together, but once we got past that initial need to learn to cooperate, we have really had synergy and that’s what everybody’s looking for.”
And the payoff goes beyond these students.
“By training a workforce that can meet the needs of these new types of companies that West Virginia would like to attract, it’s a win-win situation,” he said. “We’re helping encourage students to get the training that would make them a good workforce for biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms. And so if you’ve got the workforce that’s what attracts the businesses.”
Dr. Robert Griffith, associate professor of medicinal chemistry at WVU and faculty research development coordinator for WV-INBRE, also lauded the program for its proven cooperation between the two universities.
“This is the finest example of collaboration between WVU and Marshall that exists in the state,” he said. “And it benefits the whole state, not just WVU and Marshall.”
As part of the grant, WV-INBRE has developed a network solely devoted to researching the genetic predispositions to cardiovascular disease that would assist the medical profession in treating the condition, Griffith said. Called the Appalachian Cardiovascular Research Network, the project is being pursued at WVU, Marshall and West Liberty University.
This research would be particularly beneficial to West Virginia, which in 2007 had the highest prevalence of heart disease out of all U.S. states and territories at 10.4 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2009, more than a quarter of deaths in the state were due to heart disease.
Griffith said the program is also benefiting the schools where the research is taking place and the students who get to try out research through the summer program.
“For these schools that have very little research money, this is really a big deal,” he said. “Many of these schools had no research programs at all until INBRE came along.”
Griffith said the WV-INBRE program provides the students with invaluable experience that doesn’t always turn out as they hoped.
“We have to make sure we tell them, ‘If at the end of the summer you’ve been working really, really hard and your experiments haven’t worked, well that’s real research,’” he said.
In Thursday’s morning session, the student presentations included work on diabetes, melanoma and meningioma diseases. The afternoon poster session included work on a variety of diseases from breast cancer and cardiovascular disease to pathogenic fungus and the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
Two of the researchers worked together in the same lab at WVU on the bacteria. Wendy Lee, a biology teacher at Musselman High School in Berkeley County, W.Va., and Philip Adams, a junior at West Virginia Wesleyan College, were both funded by WV-INBRE.
Wendy Lee, a high school teacher in West Virginia, explains how she'll use her research experience to teach her students.
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Lee was one of seven high school teachers in the state chosen to research as part of a new facet of the partnership with WV-INBRE and the Health Sciences & Technology Academy.
WV-INBRE has been assisting HSTA graduates with their research in college. It is now training their teachers who will then be able to promote research in their classrooms.
She said that after researching how the Pseudomonas releases its toxins into wounds, she has been able to visualize the research experience and can encourage her students into research as they consider their futures.
Lee also saw that future this summer.
“Watching the presentations today, talking to some of the students knowing they’re our future makes me smile because I know it’s brighter because they will be able to go out and do the research and do it well,” Lee said.
Philip Adams, a college student researcher, describes how his summer research went.
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Philip Adams, a biology major who was also studying the bacteria in the same lab, said he has more career options to consider now.
“It’s kind of caused more questions than answers, so now I’m thinking about going to grad school,” Adams said.
“Working with Wendy this summer has kind of made me think about teaching in high school,” he said. “I’ve talked to her a lot about that. I’m actually planning a trip to her high school to talk to her kids about my summer experience and encourage them when they get to college to do something like I did.”
By Diana Mazzella
WVU News and Information
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