Undergrads Share Health, Science Research at NHS Conference

APRIL 9, 2014 – A tremendous amount of progress has been made in understanding the human genome since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, according to a well-known scientist at the National Institutes of Health.

Eric D. Green, MD, PhD, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, delivered the keynote address this week at the Undergraduate Research Conference – an annual event sponsored by the Department of Human Science at the School of Nursing & Health Studies.

“I am convinced that the students here that go into science are absolutely going to be involved in interpreting and reinterpreting the human genome sequence during their career,” Green told the audience gathered in Gaston Hall.  “But I also think that the students that they train are going to be doing this and even the students in the next generation.”

‘Scratching the Surface’

During his talk, Green covered the history of the human genome sequencing, advances in understanding the genetics associated with rare and common diseases, and a future focus on infusing genomics into the science of medicine and the effectiveness of health care.

Green, who was involved with the Human Genome Project, says that analysis of the human genome sequence will continue.

“We will be studying the human genome sequence for decades to come because it’s really complicated,” he says.  “And I think we’re just scratching the surface of all the ... important information encoded in those three billion letters of the human genome.”

Celebrating Research

Martin Y. Iguchi, PhD, dean of the School of Nursing & Health Studies, welcomed the audience at Green’s keynote address, which took place as part of the three-day conference that included student oral and poster presentations and an awards ceremony.

“It’s great to be here today to celebrate undergraduate research – both our student investigators and the professors who inspire them,” Iguchi said.

The dean noted that the conference, which began in 2003, has grown from 10 student poster presentations to approximately 80.

Faculty Mentorship

“When I came to Georgetown several years ago, I was greatly impressed by the commitment our faculty members make to research at the undergraduate level,” Iguchi said.  “It was clear to me that faculty took their mentoring role very seriously.”

Jan LaRocque, PhD, assistant professor of human science, is an advisor for the conference along with Nikki Elston, MS, assistant dean, and Alex Theos, PhD, assistant professor of human science.

She said the mentorship experience is a fulfilling one.

“Undergraduate research provides an opportunity for faculty to have a direct role mentoring students and teaching them the intricacies of scientific research,” she said.  “A strong researcher-mentor relationship provides a positive experience for both faculty and students.”

Student Leadership

The conference is planned each year by a committee of undergraduates.  This year’s group included Macarena Basanes (NHS’16), Priya Misir (C’15), Aidan Neustadtl (C’16), Alexandra Pietraszkiewicz (NHS’14), Taylor Polk (NHS’16), and Faith Svigos (NHS’14).

Victor Wang (NHS’15) chaired the group and noted that the conference is an “opportunity for students to shine.”

The students’ posters covered many topics, ranging from DNA damage and antiretroviral treatment, to community health and pediatric palliative care.

“As the student chair, I’ve gotten a glimpse at why faculty would take on student researchers and why students should care about getting more involved in research,” he said.  “It’s really a learning process that goes both ways, and it’s a unique path of self-discovery.”

Award Winners

At a ceremony held today in Copley Formal Lounge, a number of awards were given.

Awards for oral and poster presentations are named in honor of conference founder Charles H. Evans  Jr., MD, PhD, former chair of the Department of Human Science who retired in 2009.  And the award for excellence in faculty mentorship is named in recognition of longtime faculty member Allan Angerio, PhD, associate professor emeritus of human science.

Physiologist Jason Tilan, PhD, assistant professor of nursing and human science, won the mentorship award. Neurobiology major Christopher Griffey (C’14) earned the award for best oral presentation. In addition, biology of global health major Jennifer Purks (C’14) garnered the award for best poster presentation with Wang and Meredith Horton (NHS’14), both human science majors, being named first and second runners-up.

Making Science Fun

Tilan said he is honored to have been nominated by Horton and David Christian (NHS’14), two undergraduates he has mentored in the laboratory.

“Being able to assist in navigating these new waters is a critical and exciting responsibility for us as mentors,” he said.  “Science, in general, and biological science, in particular, can be rather abstract.  We have the ability to make it tangible and, hopefully, make science fun.”   

During the ceremony, Tilan recalled how he had served as Angerio’s teaching assistant for four years during graduate school and noted that the professor became a mentor and role model for his own career as a scientist and educator.

“I’ll never be able to pay him back,” Tilan said.

By Bill Cessato