Undergraduates Discover Opportunities in Research

For the second year in a row, the “Discoveries in Bioimaging” Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), has brought 10 undergraduates from universities across the United States and Puerto Rico to the University of Illinois to learn about research.

Led by Stephen Boppart, professor of electrical and computer engineering and the co-chair of Beckman’s Integrative Imaging theme, and Andrew Smith, professor of bioengineering, the Illinois program focuses on bioimaging. Leading researchers from a number of labs across campus discussed their work during an initial week-long bootcamp. Under the guidance of graduate student mentors, the undergrads have been working on diverse projects.

REU students

“I’ve worked in a biomaterials lab, and one of the things that my faculty supervisor suggested was that I should try to find opportunities to expand my knowledge and skills during the summer, specifically for institutions with topics outside of what I’m currently doing,” said Matthew Kavanaugh, who is about to begin his junior year in chemical engineering at the University of Kansas. “Science is becoming more and more collaborative and multidisciplinary and, although it does seem beneficial to stay with the same thing, in the long run it is valuable to get that broader perspective.”

Kavanaugh has been working in a lab that focuses on genetically modified proteins and peptides, where he focuses on their surface characterization on metals via atomic force microscopy. At Illinois he’s been working in the lab of Rohit Bhargava, professor of bioengineering and member of Beckman’s Bioimaging Science and Technology Group. Their project is building a classification system for cancerous tissue samples that have been taken by infrared spectroscopy.

“Our REU Discoveries in Bioimaging program is dedicated to inspiring and training undergraduates in STEM fields through a summer experience in bioimaging research. The unifying link between bioscience, discovery, and bioimaging is an inspirational centerpiece for this site at the University of Illinois."-Marina Marjanovic

With the help of his mentor, graduate student Saumya Tiwari, he’s been writing a computer program that can help in the analysis of the samples.

“This summer Matthew worked on analyzing breast cancer microenvironment using machine learning approaches,” said Tiwari. “Through this experience, Matthew got exposed to the idea of utilizing imaging based approaches to study cancer progression, and learned to apply machine learning algorithms to analyze digital imaging data. His work helps us develop infrared imaging-based tests to determine the outcome of disease in breast cancer patients.”

Jorge Maldonado is about to begin his senior year at Universidad del Este in Puerto Rico. He’s working with Brad Sutton, associate professor of bioengineering and member of Beckman’s Bioimaging Science and Technology Group, on a project focusing on patients with multiple sclerosis using the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines at Beckman’s Biomedical Imaging Center.

Jorge Maldonado and Brad Sutton

“I’m processing some MRI images from multiple sclerosis patients in order to build a structural connectivity matrix to see which connections in the cortex are involved in walking dysfunction in these patients,” said Maldonado. “Dr. Sutton published a paper in January about how the motor component of the brain is affecting walking, but we didn’t know how the cognitive component was affected, so now we are considering all the cortical structures.”

Maldonado appreciates the resources that the Beckman Institute has.

“There’s a lot of technology that really attracted me to come here,” he said. “I think in Puerto Rico, there is no research at the undergraduate level with MRI.”

Hannah Bouvin is going into her junior year at Iowa State, where she’s studying chemical engineering. Her project at the Beckman Institute is directed by Wawrzyniec Dobrucki, assistant professor of bioengineering and member of Beckman’s Bioimaging Science and Technology Group. Her mentor is Jamila Hedhli, a graduate research assistant. Their project is looking at the effect of adipose-derived stem cells on angiogenesis.

Jamila Hedhli and Hannah Bouvin width=

“I didn’t know anything about this project, I’ve learned a ton,” said Bouvin. I’ve learned about PET/CT and how to work with radioactivity, and bioluminescence imaging. We are hoping to transfect stem cells with a plasmid that has a gene in it that is the firefly luciferin gene, which is how fireflies light up. This way we’ll be able to see if the stem cells are still alive and where they are.”

“At first, Hannah seemed intimidated by the fast pace of the lab,” said Hedhli, “But I was impressed by the way she quickly got familiar with the material and presented it with confidence at the REU presentation. She received honors for both her poster and written proposal. I believe that Hannah will become a great scientist one day.” 

For both Kavanaugh and Maldonado, the thrill of research lies in what results.

Matthew Kavanaugh and Saumya Tiwari

“There isn’t an expected outcome in research, so it’s a lot more difficult to say ‘I got it,’ or ‘I’ve done something wrong,’” said Kavanaugh. “Sometimes something has changed and we need to modify the computer programs or include something or exclude something else.”

“This is my first experience with processing and compiling a lot of data, and I like what I’m doing,” said Maldonado. “We get a bunch of data and we do a lot of steps that take a lot of time, but at the end we get results that we didn’t expect, but that are very exciting.”

Illinois’ reputation as a leader in bioimaging provides inspiration to the students and encourages them to consider graduate school in the field, said Marina Marjanovic, associate director of the Center for Optical Molecular Imaging and coordinator of the program.

“Our REU Discoveries in Bioimaging program is dedicated to inspiring and training undergraduates in STEM fields through a summer experience in bioimaging research,” said Marjanovic. “The unifying link between bioscience, discovery, and bioimaging is an inspirational centerpiece for this site at the University of Illinois.

“It has been really delightful to observe how quickly and with what enthusiasm these students embrace serious and in-depth research projects. They do not mind long days in the lab or in front of the computer, although for most of them this is their first-time experience. Most importantly, they gain confidence in conducting and presenting their research.”

The experience may also lead some students to study further, perhaps at Illinois.

“This is definitely on my radar,” said Kavanaugh. “I’ve heard now about the engineering-based medical school, which is due to open in 2018, just when I’m graduating. Of the options I am considering, all of them can be met here at the University of Illinois. “