Undergraduates Discover Power of Research

After the National Institutes of Health “Women’s Health Initiative” study suggested that certain increased health risks may accompany use of hormone replacement therapy, some postmenopausal women were left without good options for treating their symptoms.

A Northwestern undergraduate student worked to change that.

Michelle Oeser (WCAS06) spent her senior year and the summer following graduation in the laboratory of professor Jon Levine attempting to understand what causes hot flashes, a common but poorly understood symptom of menopause.

“If we can understand the mechanism behind hot flashes we can treat them better and more safely,” says Oeser, who also spent a lot of time in the pool as a member of the women’s varsity swim team and now works as a research technologist in the lab of Franck Mauvais-Jarvis, associate professor of medicine in the endocrinology division at the Feinberg School of Medicine. Oeser eventually plans to go to graduate school.

“Our hypothesis is that estrogen regulates a certain type of thermosensitive potassium channel in neurons involved in temperature regulation — estrogen keeps these neurons quiet,” says Levine, professor of neurobiology and physiology and a longtime advocate of undergraduate research. “Michelle provided preliminary evidence showing our hypothesis might be true.”

Working with mice made “menopausal-like” by removing their ovaries, Oeser produced two key findings: estrogen reduces heat dissipation from the skin in these mice, and both the potassium channels and estrogen receptors are present in the same neurons in a part of the brain where thermoregulation takes place. These data were included in a grant proposal Levine’s research team sent to the National Institutes of Health.

 “Doing research was a huge learning experience and a very good one,” says Oeser. “Now I really know how science is done.”

Northwestern’s commitment to undergraduate research provides students with a tremendous opportunity to make fundamental discoveries — about science, engineering and themselves.

“By working directly with faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students on scholarly and creative projects, undergraduates experience much more of the life of the University,” says Daniel Linzer, dean of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, who describes Northwestern undergraduates as “phenomenal.”

“They develop a better understanding of classroom material, they can discover a passionate interest in a particular field of study, and they can better determine if continuing their education through graduate school or professional school is right for them,” he says.

At any given time chemistry professor SonBinh Nguyen has a number of undergraduate students working with him in the lab. One is Sharan Srinivasan, a sophomore in the Integrated Science Program who started working with Nguyen the summer before Srinivasan’s freshman year. His project involves developing an advanced polymer-based method for DNA detection that could lead to earlier detection of pathogens, particularly HIV and anthrax.

Recent graduate Dorothea Koh (McC06) also worked in Nguyen’s lab after an organic chemistry class taught by Nguyen sparked her interest in research. Since her freshman year, Koh worked on developing a DNA detection method but with a different approach from Srinivasan’s. Hers involved using bio-organic materials as rigid frameworks for attaching DNA.

During her senior year, with plenty already on her plate, Koh decided to take on another research project. The work was a continuation of her senior design project in biomedical engineering and focused on improving the sensitivity of immunodiagnostic tests used to detect proteins associated with various diseases, such as prostate cancer and HIV. Koh employed a polymer coating on the diagnostic probe to repel unwanted serum proteins that caused interference — an idea she came up with while taking a class with Phillip Messersmith, associate professor of biomedical engineering.

Koh has published two papers on the DNA detection work she did at Northwestern. “Research has taught me to think outside the box,” says Koh, who was advised on her second project by Nguyen, Messersmith and David Kelso, professor of biomedical engineering. “It is about the excitement of discoveries and the beauty of innovation.”

A former student of Levine’s and now a Gates Cambridge Scholar, Thomas Johnson III (WCAS05) recently took his research skills “across the pond” to Cambridge’s Centre for Brain Repair, where he is conducting research in the use of stem cells to regenerate the optic nerve in glaucoma.

While at Northwestern, Johnson participated in both basic science and clinical research to get a better idea of where to take his research in the future.

To get some bench experience, he worked his senior year with Levine on the same neuroendocrine project as Oeser, who took it up after he left. Prior to that, Johnson spent the summer after his freshman year in the clinic of Angelo Tanna, an expert in glaucoma and assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Feinberg School of Medicine. Johnson tested a new visual field measurement device on glaucoma patients.

 “I also got to shadow Dr. Tanna in the clinic and scrub in for surgeries, which was a very stimulating experience for a premed undergrad,” says Johnson, who will attend the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine after he completes his doctorate at Cambridge.

“The most important thing I realized in the lab was how much work and critical thinking research requires,” says Johnson, who plans to practice medicine as well as conduct biomedical research. “I was surprised how often experiments don’t work or they produce strange results that take a tremendous amount of analysis to understand. But it’s this intellectual challenge of research that makes it so appealing.” —M.F.