Olathe North students work with K-State researchers on senior projects

July 29, 2010

Collaboration between Students and Scientists: The Overview

seniorprojectOLATHE - Kan. - In the first year of the partnership between K-State Olathe and the Olathe School District (OSD), four seniors at Olathe North High School had the opportunity to participate in an ongoing research project at the K-State lab of Dr. James Lillich. This qualified as their senior project for the Animal Health 21st Century Program.

Throughout the 2008-2009 school year, students averaged two or three hours weekly of after-school work on the project, said Teresa Woods, coordinator of the K-State Olathe/OSD partnership.

The research differed from the typical high school science experience in several ways. Because this research specifically related to ongoing research in a university lab, no one knew the answers. Usually high school lab experiments replicate tests of which the answers are at least generally known. Also, students in this project worked at a high level of sophistication, made possible because Olathe North has advanced equipment in its labs.

"I really credit Randy Dix with that, with the support of the Olathe School District," Woods said. "He really secured wonderful biotechnology equipment."

Between that equipment and resources - such as chemicals and reagents used in tests - which K-State provided, and the sophisticated level of understanding the researchers brought, the students acquired a real advantage as far as research.

Students learned how to design and implement sophisticated experiments. They performed reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reactions (RTPCRs) – a technique which earned its creator, Kary Mullis, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993. Students also performed protein electrophoresis and Western Blots.

Dr. Kris Silver, a postdoctoral fellow working in Lillich's lab who worked with the students in Manhattan and Olathe, said the experience challenged the students because they –professional scientists and high school students alike – had no idea what the outcome would be. Throughout the year, the students' lab skills and confidence made significant progress.

"If they're interested and they're really jazzed about it, they have a great attitude and they're willing to work and apply themselves," Lillich said. "That's the fun part of it; it makes you feel good that's happening."

At the conclusion of the project, the students presented their work at the Greater Kansas City Science Fair, where they answered questions from the judges as well as people who visited. They also presented to their fellow students and to their supervising researchers.

"Peer review is a major part of doing science," Woods said. "You get critiques and feedback from other scientists who are specialized in the field that know something and may be able to add insights, add new experimental results, and so really within a community of scientists you're gaining new knowledge."

Three components contributed to the success of the project, Woods said. First of all, the Olathe School District has been very supportive. Secondly, Dix went above and beyond to make connections for the students and really committed himself to the project.

A colleague from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology confirmed the third ingredient for success when he mentioned the inclusion of someone like Woods as a reason the project went so well. Woods elaborated on that.

"One of the keys to the success of these kinds of programs is engaging a scientist educator, which is a hybrid," Woods said. "The culture of research and the culture of education are really different, and it's helpful to have somebody who understands both of those cultures to get them communicating. For instance, the nature of research is fairly open-ended. You don't know where it's going to take you next. In education, you have a school year, or you have a semester. You have a limited amount of time with the students; you're not going to have graduate students who can stay until midnight to finish an experiment."

Where are they now?

Three of the four students who participated in the project went on to study at Kansas State University. Woods thought that while two of those probably would have gone anyway, one student seriously considered Cornell University but switched to K-State.

Woods said all three of the students took advantage of the connections they made through this project. For instance, two of them worked in labs this past year as part of a research program for undergraduate students at K-State. Because of their involvement in the research project, they had recommendations from people well-respected in the university, and they had applicable experience.

The College of Veterinary Medicine at K-State has a pre-admission program to which the other student has already been accepted. Because of her participation in the research project, she applied in the pre-admission program with recommendations of scientists who had already worked with her in a K-State lab and who knew she had advanced skills and understanding.

"More important to us is that they've all, in one way or another, committed to research and post-graduate education," Woods said.

An in-depth look at the research project

According to the poster board presented at the 2009 Experimental Biology Conference in New Orleans, the research involved "investigating novel mechanisms of toxicity of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in the gastrointestinal tract (GI)." Silver and Dix directed the students to perform reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reactions, protein electrophoresis, and Western Blots to ascertain the effects of NSAIDs on the mRNA and protein expression of calpain 3 and calpain 4 in different sections of equine GI tract treated with phenylbutazone (an NSAID).

Simply put, the research explores how NSAIDs – which range from aspirin and Tylenol to heavy-duty drugs that were pulled off the market because they caused cardiovascular issues – affect the body.

More specifically, Lillich, Silver and the students studied a group of proteins known as calpains. These proteins are responsible for maintenance of tissues; they get rid of dead cells and facilitate the movement of new ones. During three to four years of research with this focus, several possibilities have emerged.

They found the function and expression of calpains decreases with NSAIDs treatment. Lillich said quite possibly that means a non-steroidal drug is detrimental to the wound healing process. The body has to replenish its cells, and the non-steroidals are probably inhibiting that. The long-term or overall effect is that non-steroidals may inhibit all types of wound healing, whether the wound is in a bone or muscle or GI tract, while at the same time reducing pain or inflammatiion.

However, sometimes inhibiting that cell-replacement process can be good. Some NSAIDs like aspirin are helpful in some GI tumors because they slow the invasion of those bad cells by hindering migration – also known as metastasis. In those situations the tumor could shrink or become less aggressive.

"There's lots of possibilities here," Lillich said. "We only know a fraction of the complete story, but it's certainly worth pursuing, and an interesting story."

- By Ashley Dunkak -