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7/14/11 - NSF funds summer undergrad research at MSU

More than two dozen undergraduate students from around the country are at Mississippi State to work on research projects that could have long-term significance in areas ranging from improving male fertility to learning how diseases form.

Funded through the National Science Foundation, the program involves university researchers in computational biology, mathematics and functional genomics spending part of the summer as mentors for 26 students from universities throughout the nation.

For senior Lauren Belser, an MSU biological sciences major from Huntsville, Ala., and junior Elizabeth Crate, a biology major at New College of Florida in Sarasota, the experience has involved work with Erdogan Memili, an associate professor of animal genomics and proteomics in the animal and dairy science department.

Memili's research focuses on the genetics of bull reproductive systems could have a future financial impact on farmers and lead to fertility breakthroughs with people, since genomes between humans and bulls have many similarities.

"Our goal is to use a systems biology approach to understand nature and functions of proteins and RNA (ribonucleic acid) in early mammalian development," Memili explained. "This program allows undergraduate students to help find science-based solutions to real-life challenges."

The ultimate goal of the summer training is to increase the number of students pursuing graduate studies in the so-called STEM areas--science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Historically, fewer students study these areas in college compared to other fields.

The NSF is supporting multiple undergraduate research programs at MSU this summer. The first, Undergraduate Research and Mentoring, is a two-year initiative that provides research and mentoring in the area of functional genomics to underrepresented minority students.

"The NSF funding on these fundamental aspects of science is really appreciated," said Memili, who also directs the campus URM program. "It's critical for the United States to be at the forefront of science."

Along with MSU, the NSF program includes collaborations with faculty members at three of Mississippi's historically black colleges and universities--Alcorn State and Jackson State universities and Tougaloo College. It also allows students to research at their own schools during the academic year and at MSU during the summer.

The second NSF-funded program--Research Experiences for Undergraduates--lasts 10 weeks and places students in laboratories with university faculty mentors.

MSU currently has two separate REU programs. One is led by associate mathematics professor Hyeona Lim and focuses on research at the university's Center for Computational Sciences and in the mathematics and statistics department. Based in the computer science and engineering department, the second deals with computational biology and is led by Andy Perkins, an assistant professor in the department.

Senior Olga Stulov, a mathematics and electrical engineering double-major at the State University of New York at New Paltz, has been examining microorganisms as they relate to medical applications and biofuels. Under the mentorship of Xingzhou Yang, an assistant professor of mathematics, she will use the experience to prepare her for graduate school.

Perkins, also a mentor, said the NSF's campus undergraduate research programs have done much to help expose the next generation of researchers to more laboratory-based environments.

"We're really trying to get students interested in math and science careers," he said.

ROBBIE S. WARD | University Relations

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