The Value of Undergraduate Research

Students examine a gene related to preterm birth
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Nearly half a million babies in the United States are born prematurely each year, increasing their risk for health complications and even death. Premature softening and opening of the cervix is a leading contributor.

Chemistry major Allison Newell holds a passion for women's health and plans to become an ob-gyn, which explains her fascination to better understand how cervical changes lead to preterm birth. Her research partner is biology major Morgan Thompson, who wants to become a veterinarian.

For the past year and a half, these two Appalachian State University honors students have examined how levels of a gene called vascular endothelial growth factor, or VEGF, change during cervical infections in mice. They found that levels of VEGF increased during infections, supporting their hypothesis that VEGF could be the underlying molecule during infection-induced preterm births.

"If we learn enough about VEGF, hopefully it will lead to ways to control VEGF and find ways to prevent infection-induced preterm birth.

We're establishing a basis of information," explains Thompson, a junior from Hendersonville.

The women worked on their project under the mentoring of Dr. Nathan Mowa, a veterinarian and assistant professor in Appalachian's Department of Biology who specializes in the mechanisms of birth.

In early April, Morgan and Newell presented their research at a prestigious meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in San Diego, CA, titled "Today's Research, Tomorrow's Health." They are among an increasing number of Appalachian students engaged in undergraduate research who present their work at regional and national conferences.

"The opportunities at Appalachian are unmatched," says Newell, a senior from Charlotte. "Undergraduate research immerses you in the field. For me, it has tied everything together, from my classes to my clinical experience as a nursing assistant in Student Health Services. It certainly pertains to my goals to go to medical school."

For Thompson, a first-generation college student, conducting undergraduate research in a well-equipped lab and spending time with scientists at a professional conference "gave me a taste of what my life is going to be in the science field—a constant strive to make a difference," she said.

The pair met during Thompson's freshman year when she took a chemistry class in which Newell was a laboratory teaching assistant.

Their collaboration from chemistry and biology perspectives enhanced their research project, Newell said, because they could play off each other's academic strengths.

"Preventing preterm births excites us both," Thompson added. "We're excited to be establishing this basis that can be used for years to come by other students and other scientists."

Thompson plans to continue their research during her senior year in 2008-09. Plenty of women and infants may certainly benefit from it.