High school students advancing research in USA lab
When Dr. David Forbes talks about students doing research in his department, he gets excited. That’s because he sees the highest return in equipping engaged students.
“What we try to do, through scholarship and research, is to get students excited as ‘collaborators,’” says Forbes, professor and chair of chemistry at the University of South Alabama. He emphasizes that word, “collaborators.”
This semester, Forbes has played host to a couple of collaborators from the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science. “They are great,” says Forbes, speaking of ASMS senior Amanda Peterson and junior Anna Wright. “They are learning basic laboratory skills as collaborators, not technicians.”
Forbes makes the distinction to emphasize the level of research the students are undertaking. “As first-time experimentalists, not only are they learning and applying safe laboratory practices, they are quickly becoming integrated into the research activities of the department.” In this case, the research has been focused on finding a treatment for pancreatic cancer, which has one of the worst survival rates of any form of cancer.
“This internship has given me a hands-on experience and an insight on what a real job in chemistry would be like,” said Wright, who is from Greenville, Ala. Peterson and Wright are running experiments equivalent to what is done in a college sophomore honors organic chemistry class.
“Our overall goal is to find a potent, yet selective inhibitor of the enzyme PP4,” said Peterson, who is from Daphne. Forbes added, “Data suggests that an inhibitor of PP4 may be a good treatment for pancreatic cancer.”
The research is being undertaken in partnership with Dr. Richard Honkanen, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the College of Medicine, and chemistry professors Drs. Alan Salter and Andrzej Wierzbicki.
Pretty heady stuff for a couple of high school students, but essential in Forbes’ view. “Research is an important component of our mission, and we want student involvement,” he said. “Students are much more likely to pursue a field of work if it’s something they enjoy.”
“We are learning how to purify organic compounds and run reactions with the products to form molecules that we are hoping will inhibit the enzyme,” said Peterson. “It is exciting because we are not only receiving a valuable learning experience in a chemistry lab, but we are trying to cure pancreatic cancer.”
“It’s so surreal to be a part of this,” Wright said. “This internship has taken the things I have learned in the classroom and puts them to the test. This is probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”
In that regard, the research is already a success to Forbes. “The two students have been a tremendous help in our lab,” Forbes said. “I have been very thankful to have them by my side during this process.”
ASMS students have participated in internships throughout the USA campus this fall, including the department of physical therapy and the Mitchell Cancer Institute.