When Steve Backues was an undergraduate chemistry and biochemistry major at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, he was lucky enough to have worked alongside a faculty mentor in a research lab. Now, as assistant professor of chemistry at Eastern, he’s returning the favor.
“Undergraduate research is something I experienced and always intended to carry on as a faculty member,” says Backues, who is the 2017 recipient of the College of Arts & Sciences William Fennel Symposium Faculty Mentor Award. “It’s very difficult for students to get into graduate programs if they haven’t done research. I want to give students the training they need if they choose to work at a university or for a large independent research lab.”
Backues is the principal investigator on a $297,384 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for a Research in Undergraduate Institutions project. The research involves selective autophagy, the process cells undertake to rid themselves of foreign bacteria or viruses. Defects in the autophagy process can lead to neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.
“Scientists have already identified many proteins involved in the autophagy process,” Backues says. “In my lab, we’re pursuing a greater understanding of how these proteins interact. This may eventually lead to the creation of drugs that can treat or prevent neurodegenerative diseases.”
Backues typically works alongside four to five undergraduates and one or two master’s students in his lab. They engage in every part of the project, including DNA manipulation, yeast genetics, protein biochemistry and more. The students also participate in regular lab meetings and engage in ethics training.
“Their activities depend on whatever the demands of the project are at the moment,” Backues says. “They become familiar with lab techniques and work more independently as they gain experience.”
Problem-solving and learning to handle frustration are important experiences for the students, Backues says.
“Students often expect lab experiments will work out as they do in the classroom,” Backues says. “But class experiments pretty much have a known outcome. Research experiments aren’t like that most of the time. The students learn to adjust their thinking and do a lot of troubleshooting.”
Students usually work with Backues over two to four semesters. Many transition from developing troubleshooting skills to designing their own experiments.
“Undergraduate research is a valuable opportunity for students not just to follow a protocol but engage in the entire process,” Backues says. “My students have presented their research at the Undergraduate Symposium as individuals or in teams. The NSF grant has helped them present at regional and national conferences. And their names would be included in published studies.”
EMU Assistant Professor of Chemistry Brittany Albaugh is another NSF grant recipient who involves undergraduates in her research. She received $359,776 to conduct experiments in epigenetics, the study of the different factors that regulate genes.
“We’re studying two different epigenetic proteins and trying to figure out how they function in the body at the molecular level,” Albaugh says. “These proteins have roles in various types of cancer. If we can understand how these proteins interact with genes, then scientists may be able to design drugs that can target and inhibit those proteins, and thus prevent cancer.”
Like Backues, Albaugh’s interest in scientific research began as an undergraduate.
“I took a biochemistry class at Grand Valley State and the professor invited me to do research in his lab,” Albaugh says. “That experience made me realize that the things we learn in class actually matter. Now, I like to share my excitement about research with my students. You don’t necessarily need to have an advanced degree to do amazing things. My students are just as intelligent, curious and inquisitive. I treat them like scientists and allow them to do all the things I do at the bench.”
Albaugh is currently working with nine students, eight of whom are undergraduates.
“I help and guide the students, but they’re the ones doing the work and performing the experiments,” Albaugh says. “They’re very inspiring and motivating. They approach scientific problems with a fresh perspective and unbiased eyes. They do a great job and I wouldn’t be able to do my research without them.”
With her students, Albaugh is isolating proteins for crystallization at a University of Michigan research facility to create a three-dimensional structure for study.
“When crystallized, we can identify where every single atom is located,” Albaugh says. “That may lead to the development of targeted drugs to combat certain cancers.”
In addition to the Undergraduate Symposium, Albaugh’s students have presented their research at an American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology conference.
“Undergraduate research is an invaluable experience on many levels,” Albaugh says. “Students develop problem-solving and presentation skills while they learn about the scientific process. That training can help prepare them for graduate school or a technical job.”
Visit the Chemistry Department website to learn more about student research opportunities, faculty research interests, and financial support opportunities for student research and travel.