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McNair Focuses on Research

by Greta Petry (October 10, 2003)

AURA URQUIA was looking through a folder in the McNair office on the research experiences of previous McNair scholars when she ran across an article on biologist RICHARD S. ZITOMER that included a photograph of him being hoisted in the air horizontally by his students.

“I thought he must be fun. I heard that he was a great mentor and that he used to play basketball with his students,” said the senior biology major from Ellenville, N.Y., who moved to the U.S. from Honduras with her family when she was 16. Urquia decided that Zitomer’s openness to students would contribute to a positive research experience. So she signed on as an undergraduate researcher in the University at Albany’s McNair Scholars Program, one of 150 McNair programs nationwide funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Named for Ronald E. McNair, the second African-American in space and one of seven crew members killed in the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986, the program aims to increase the attainment of Ph.D. degrees by students from underrepresented segments of society.

Increasing doctoral degrees in the sciences and other technical areas includes exposing students of color to a seven-week summer undergraduate research experience. Since the summer of 2000, the McNair program has placed students from the University at Albany and other institutions with professors at UAlbany, Albany Medical College, the Wadsworth Center of the New York State Department of Health, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“To date, 29 UAlbany faculty representing 15 departments have served as mentors to our Ronald McNair scholars – some, more than once. I think that is simply remarkable,” said McNair Coordinator JOAN FODERINGHAM.

Urquia, who is applying to medical schools this fall and carries a 3.68 GPA, has wanted to be a doctor since childhood. She transferred to the University from Ulster County Community College and is a student in the Educational Opportunities Program (EOP). A member of Golden Key International Honor Society, she also earned her way scholastically into the Presidential Honors Society. In addition, Urquia received the H. Patrick Swygert Academic Scholarship, one of EOP’s top awards.

“I was always sick and often in the hospital as a child. I would see other kids in the hospital, and it touched my heart. I wanted to help them,” said Urquia, who had major surgery at age 8, and suffered from temporary paralysis in her legs at age 11. Today she is the picture of health, but hasn’t forgotten seeing other sick children in the hospital and wanting to help.

Under Zitomer’s supervision in the lab during the summer of 2002, Urquia conducted research for a paper on The Role of the Nuclear Localization of the Transcriptional Activator MSN2 in the General Stress Response of Baker’s Yeast, which was presented at the McNair Scholars Day Symposium, the closing seminar of the program. This is when all the McNair scholars share the final outcome of their research with an audience of their peers, faculty, family, and other invited guests. Foderingham explained that this is the highlight of the McNair Summer Research Program, as it is when the students inevitably “hit a home run” demonstrating their stellar accomplishments over the seven weeks. In March 2003, Urquia was a presenter at the University of Maryland’s fourth annual National McNair Scholar and Undergraduate Researchers Conference.

Her research study involved the response of yeast cells to stress, like changes in temperature. Zitomer noted the yeast model has many of the properties of human cells even though it is a unicellular organism. By conducting experiments on yeast, one can draw certain parallels with human cells.

“On one hand the specific question is, ‘How does a cell protect itself against hostile change?’ ” Zitomer said, “But at the general level, the basic question is, ‘How do cells regulate genes? How do they get turned on and off, and encode the proteins that tell them what to do?’ ”

Every cell in the human body has the same genes, but muscle cells perform different functions than nerve or kidney cells, and their differences result from the expression of a different subset of genes. It’s like having a book of blueprints on how to build a whole city. One contractor reads the chapter on how to build a school; another reads the chapter on how to build city hall. They don’t have to read the whole book in order to carry out their job.

“In the same way the cell only reads the genetic information central to carrying out its function,” Zitomer said. “The same principle of how the yeast regulates its genes applies to humans. It is simpler to do experiments with yeast. Turning genes on and off is a basic property of cells. Aura studied the general stress response of a model system in order to see how cells respond to change.”

Zitomer has been a volunteer mentor in the McNair program for three summers. The program has served 75 students since then. Graduate student Tom Mennella supervised Zitomer’s first McNair student, AKINDELE MAJEKODUNMI, and helped him interpret the results of his research. Zitomer also worked with McNair scholar CLAUDWARDYNE THEVENIN, who graduated in May.

“There are several tiers of researchers in the laboratory,” Zitomer said. “The professor is at the top, followed by the postdocs who are there for more experience, graduate students of different levels, the technicians, and master’s degree and undergraduate biology majors. Introducing students like Aura to this multi-tiered community is one important aspect of attracting young people to research to integrate them into this community and make them comfortable with these people. In the lab, you work in very close quarters with as many as 10 to 12 people for eight, 10, 12 hours a day. You socialize together. So it is important not only to introduce them to the research, but also to the research community. This is part of the McNair program, finding out if you can fit into this community and whether you feel comfortable in it. Many minority students see the science community as being all Caucasian and Asian, and it doesn’t look inviting to them.”

Zitomer added, “Part of the fun of doing research is the fun of any work environment, being surrounded by friendly and helpful people who want
to see you succeed.”

Urquia said, “I am so comfortable with Dr. Zitomer and the people in his lab that I keep coming back. Besides giving me an understanding of why he performs his research, this research experience has helped me become more familiar with terms and methods discussed in my classes. The research experience has benefited me academically because some things that I have learned in the lab I am currently studying in my classes.”

“Professor Zitomer’s willingness to continue working with Aura illustrates the dedication I have so often observed in our faculty mentors. We owe a debt of gratitude to them for playing a key role in enriching the experience of our McNair scholars not only during the seven weeks of the summer research program, but often beyond,” Foderingham said.

In the meantime, Urquia sets a good example with her high academic standards for her brother Alvaro, in his second year of college, and her sister, Pamela, now a senior in high school. Her mother, a homemaker, and her father, a former accountant in Honduras who works in manufacturing, were pleased that she had this opportunity.

“I just want to give thanks to God for all these good people like Dr. Zitomer, McNair Director Dr. Carson Carr, McNair Coordinator Joan Foderingham, and the graduate students in the lab who have all supported me,” said Urquia. “I would definitely recommend it to others. They really do care about people succeeding.”


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