How Science Changes the World

Answering big questions, one step at a time

FINDING SOLUTIONS IN FUNGUS Morgan Dwyer has worked with Associate Professor Kwangwon Lee to use fungi to research ways of stopping the spread of disease.

Morgan Dwyer has worked with Associate Professor Kwangwon Lee to use fungi to research ways of stopping the spread of disease.

By Sam Starnes

Improving drugs that help fight addictions. Enhancing the quality of sleep. Identifying DNA at crime scenes. Stopping the spread of diseases. Preserving the planet in the face of global changes. Fighting the pervasiveness of cancer.

Rutgers University–Camden faculty and students are working every day on these complex goals. Students conduct significant scientific research with faculty while working on bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Their professors in biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, physics, and other science fields collaborate across disciplines to address worldwide concerns. “We are creating a new generation of scientists,” said Nir Yakoby, an associate professor of biology and director of the Rutgers– Camden Center for Computational and Integrative Biology.

CREATING A NEW GENERATION OF SCIENTISTS Nir Yakoby, center, is director of the Rutgers–Camden Center for Computational and Integrative Biology

Nir Yakoby, at right, is director of the Rutgers–Camden Center for Computational and Integrative Biology

Yakoby’s groundbreaking research on the fruit fly, which focuses on tissue development, has implications that may aid in the fight against cancer. His work has been widely published and awarded several notable grants. A trademark of his research involves partnering with mathematicians and computer scientists, an approach shared by many science faculty at Rutgers–Camden. “The core of what we are doing is breaking boundaries and bringing fresh ideas and solutions to biological problems,” Yakoby said.

Through the recent addition of the Nursing and Science Building with advanced science laboratories, and a recent commitment of a $2.5 million gift from biotechnology industry pioneer Sandy Stewart, a 1981 Rutgers–Camden biology graduate who earned a master’s degree in 1987, the university is positioned to expand its far-reaching research and to educate students in STEM fields who go on to careers that have impact around the world.

Stewart, who made his first of many discoveries and published his first science paper as an undergraduate almost 40 years ago, said student and faculty research contributes to the major questions of science. “The big picture of science comes from a lot of little pictures,” said Stewart, who also funds an endowment for undergraduate student research. “One person and one project don’t answer a big question. The big questions are answered from a lot of work done by a lot of people done over a lot of time. All of that work pieces together a large picture and can answer a large question.”

UNDERSTANDING CHANGING ECOSYSTEMS <br>Katrina DeWitt, at right, works closely with Assistant Professor Angélica González on the goal of understanding how ecosystems respond to global environmental changes.

Katrina DeWitt, at right, works closely with Assistant Professor Angélica González on the goal of understanding how ecosystems respond to global environmental changes.

In-Depth Research

When Morgan Dwyer transferred to Rutgers–Camden for her sophomore year, the biology major from Maple Shade, New Jersey, took Associate Professor Kwangwon Lee’s course Exploring Careers in Biology. “That was super eye-opening,” Dwyer said. “I saw that people were making a living out of research.”

Dwyer went on to do summer internships in Lee’s lab, helping with his research using fungus to study circadian rhythms with the ultimate goal of helping to enhance the quality of human sleep. She also initiated a project of her own to study the underlying genetics of fungi that transmit diseases to both plants and humans. The larger goal of Dwyer’s research is to make discoveries that could help produce medicines that stop the spread of diseases.

Dwyer’s efforts earned her a fellowship funded by Stewart that supported her research during her senior year. She met Stewart and had an “encouraging conversation” with him that helped cement her decision to go on to graduate school. Dwyer, who graduated in May, will begin a Ph.D. program in Thomas Jefferson University’s College of Biomedical Sciences and wants to work in the pharmaceutical or biotechnology industries. “I love research and want to be involved in projects related to human health,” Dwyer said.

An Ecological Worldview

Katrina DeWitt, another undergraduate student who benefitted from a Stewart fellowship in her senior year, is seeking ecological answers for how plants and animals will respond to global environmental changes. DeWitt, an Elk Township, New Jersey, resident who in May earned her bachelor’s degree in biology only three years after finishing high school, works closely with Angélica González, an assistant professor of biology whose Rutgers–Camden laboratory focuses on the study of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. DeWitt’s senior project involved studying insects and other invertebrates, such as mosquitoes and mites, living inside pitcher plants. “The ultimate goal will be to determine how organisms will respond to changes in climate and nutrient pollution,” DeWitt said.

DeWitt plans to continue her research in the Rutgers–Camden master’s program in biology, and she will spend the summer doing field research in the New Jersey Pinelands. She has already done much field work as an undergraduate, including a project in 2016 when she traveled to Poland with González to study air pollution and how chemical pollutants are captured by spider webs.

González, a native of Chile, said the goal of her lab is to predict how ecosystems will respond to environmental change, as well as guiding ecosystem management and conservation strategies. “What we learn from surveying and doing experiments in our study systems can be applied to other aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems worldwide,” González said.

DeWitt, who aspires to earn a Ph.D. in agricultural ecology, said she is pursuing a love that grew from working on a vegetable farm near her home for the past five years. By combining her experience in the field, classroom, and the laboratory, she has long-term goals of making a difference. “My understanding of ecology will enable me to go into fields and increase crop yields and look at plant diseases,” DeWitt said.

The Science of Crime Scenes

Another arena where science has led to significant strides is in crime scene investigations. Rutgers–Camden is home to the Laboratory for Forensic Technology Development and Integration, which aims to improve the science behind identifying individual DNA contributors when a sample from a crime scene—often blood, skin cells, or saliva—delivered to a crime lab contains a mixture of samples from different people. “Crime scenes are very messy,” said Catherine Grgicak, the Henry Rutgers Chair and associate professor of chemistry who is one of two team leaders for the lab. “The crux of the problem is that we don’t know much about the sample that comes into the laboratory.”

This focus on separating DNA samples and analyzing single cells fascinates master’s student Amanda Gonzalez, a former crime scene technician with the Camden County Police Department. Gonzalez, who earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and biology at Rutgers–Camden in 2013, has witnessed many a crime scene, including one from a shooting that spread over four blocks. “That crime scene took two days to process,” she said.

A mother of three who also served in the U.S. Air Force and was deployed to Iraq twice, Gonzalez hopes to work as a DNA analyst in a laboratory where she said the way in which DNA evidence is interpreted can have tremendous implications. “It can possibly lead to wrongful convictions, but also freeing someone who potentially committed a crime,” she said. “What we do as research professionals is pave the way for fellow forensic scientists to develop ways to do things with more certainty.”

IMPROVING DRUGS THAT HELP FIGHT ADDICTION <br>Recent doctoral graduate Sruthi Murlidaran, and Associate Professor Grace Brannigan using computer modeling tools.

Recent doctoral graduate Sruthi Murlidaran, at right, and Associate Professor Grace Brannigan using computer modeling tools.

Groundbreaking Research

After Sruthi Murlidaran earned her bachelor’s degree in biotechnology in her native India in 2012, she sought a program that allowed her to combine her interest in the field with computer science. That search landed her as a doctoral student in Rutgers–Camden’s computational and integrative biology degree program, from which she graduated in May. Her research has focused on a key neuroreceptor and proteins in the brain that are responsible for the beneficial effects of drugs for epilepsy, anxiety, insomnia, and anesthesia, but also are related to many addictions. “The big surprise is that we don’t completely understand how this receptor works,” she said.

Her work, in which she compares her computer modeling results with experiments conducted by other researchers, is indicative of much work being done by the 25 Ph.D. students in the Center for Computational and Integrative Biology. Grace Brannigan, associate professor of physics and graduate program director for the center, has directed Murlidaran’s work. She said Murlidaran’s use of physics-based computer modeling gives a perspective on the brain that otherwise is not possible. “It’s a window into a system you can’t visualize,” Brannigan said.

Murlidaran has published seven peer-reviewed papers as a student at Rutgers–Camden. The primary goal of her work is to provide findings that will lead to better drug designs and an understanding of why people react differently to anesthetics. “Any small information I find out adds a puzzle piece to the big picture,” she said.

A Discovery that Still Resonates

Gift by Alumnus Has Roots in His Undergraduate Research

Biotechnology industry pioneer Sandy Stewart is a 1981 Rutgers–Camden biology graduate who earned a master’s degree in 1987.

Biotechnology industry pioneer Sandy Stewart is a 1981 Rutgers–Camden biology graduate who earned a master’s degree in 1987.

Although Sandy Stewart grew up in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, he attended high school on a small island off the Virginia coast where his family moved in the ’70s. He returned to New Jersey to attend Rutgers–Camden, but said he was a mediocre student during his first two years. “I was certainly lacking in self-confidence, but I knew I wanted to go into immunology,” he said.

He asked Professor Henry Stempen, whose immunology class he had taken, if he could work in his lab. “I told him I’d wash glassware. I’d do anything. He finally relented and said I could come in over winter break. He didn’t know I actually lived in Virginia. I pretty much gave up my Christmas at home.”

Stewart, who lived at the time in the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity house, continued a project working with antibodies—proteins that fight diseases—that had begun in Stempen’s class. “I cleaned up the lab and he said, ‘Why don’t you start playing around with the antibodies that you made?’ I did. On my fourth day there, I made a discovery that no one had ever seen before.”

His discovery of a transparent covering that allowed a fungus to attach to the leaves of corn plants led to a paper he and Stempen published in an academic journal. “All of a sudden I became a star student,” he said. “That changed my life. That’s why I started the undergraduate research endowment. I want other students to be able to have that opportunity to do research.”

Stewart’s support of undergraduate research dates to 2009 and funds research by three students annually. His new $2.5 million bequest intention announced in April, the Sandy J. Stewart Endowed Equipment and Instruments Fund, will purchase the kind of equipment used at leading science laboratories. He said experience with equipment such as mass spectrometers, gene sequencers, and flow cytometers—equipment that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars—will give graduates an advantage in the job market. “Students are going to have advanced experiences that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” he said.

After Stewart finished his master’s at Rutgers–Camden, his storied career began at the pharmaceutical company Novartis in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. He went on to co-found several biotechnology companies, including Immunovation and Paradigm Genetics (now Cogenics Icoria Inc.). He was one of the first in the world to greatly advance the technology of biochemical profiling, now known as metabolomics, at ParadigmGenetics and recently continued his work at Metabolon Inc. He has earned many awards, published numerous papers, and holds several biotechnology patents. He also has worked with the American Red Cross and the United Nations on HIV research and with Prionics AG on research related to “mad cow disease.”

He lives in North Carolina, and has been active on Rutgers boards since 2006. He serves as chair of the Rutgers Board of Governors and is the first Rutgers–Camden graduate to lead the universitywide governing body. He said his devotion is rooted in the fondness he feels for the university. “I got a great education,” he said. “Maybe I’ll help change somebody else’s life the way that my research opportunities at Rutgers–Camden changed mine.”

Joseph Martin, professor and associate dean for science, mathematics, technology, and health sciences with Mario Rivera and female student

Joseph Martin, professor and associate dean for science, mathematics, technology, and health sciences with biology students Mario Rivera and Cynthia Nieves.

A Community of Science Scholars

Rutgers–Camden undergraduate students in biology, chemistry, computer science, math, and physics benefit from a wide range of support through Q-STEP, an on-campus mentoring program that began in 2009 as part of the National Science Foundation’s STEM Talent Expansion Program (STEP). “A major aim of the project is to create a community of scholars in the quantitative sciences,” said Joseph Martin, professor and associate dean for science, mathematics, technology, and health sciences. “The big picture is to try to increase the number of students who go into STEM fields and to grow the talent pool.”

Mario Rivera, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in May, served as vice president of Q-STEP his senior year. He said when he started at Rutgers–Camden in 2016 as a transfer student from Camden County College that Q-STEP was an enormous help. “I got to meet a lot of people with similar goals,” he said.

Rivera, a first-generation college student from Camden, benefitted from tutoring by senior students in the Q-STEP program. As a senior, he returned the favor by tutoring younger students studying in the sciences. He hopes to attend medical school and become a pediatrician. “I want to be able to help people—especially little kids,” Rivera said.

Michael Barnimore

Michael Bamimore

The Road to Medical School

About 75 percent of biology students begin their first year with plans to go to medical school, but often change career plans as they learn of other options within the major. However, quite a few from Rutgers–Camden, such as 2017 graduate Michael Bamimore, stay on the path to becoming physicians. A student finishing his first year at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Bamimore won several awards for his undergraduate biological research.

His interest in becoming a doctor began as a young boy in Nigeria, where he lived with his grandparents from the age of 6 to 13 and witnessed many in his community die from diseases that were preventable and treatable. After becoming a surgeon, his long-range plan is to return to Nigeria and improve the country’s health-care system. “Bringing a change to Nigeria’s health-care system is not just about giving back,” Bamimore said. “It is about providing the most basic human need to the ones who need it the most.”

Bamimore said his Rutgers– Camden education helped him to succeed in his first year of medical school. “I feel like I’ve had a big advantage over other students,” he said.

Posted in: 2018 Spring, Features

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