Public Affairs

Research Changes Lives

Feb. 4, 2011
By Elizabeth Chapin

Student Vince Trapani in Dr. Katherine McReynolds' lab at Sacramento State.  Trapani is pictured with a news 500 MHz NMR spectrometer that was purchased with project grant funding.CSU faculty and student co-researchers are making breakthroughs in the lab that could lead to major long-term impacts on the medical community. Research developments at campuses such as Cal State Fullerton and Sacramento State could eventually contribute to the next cure for diseases like HIV and Alzheimer's. Student researchers play a major contribution in these developments.

Faculty researchers are mentoring students in their labs, sparking their interest in science as they see the potential their research has to save lives. At the same time, through the mentorship and training received from faculty, the students realize their own potential in scientific study and practice.

Sacramento State professor Katherine McReynolds' project focuses on the design and creation of potential anti-viral vehicles for the HIV virus. Her research is especially promising because it focuses on sugar-based molecules called glycodendrimers, which have potential anti-viral qualities. All of the current FDA-approved anti-HIV drugs have undesirable, sometimes intolerable side effects that limit their use in some patients. Therefore, McReynolds focuses on designing less toxic molecules so they can be tolerated by patients - who perhaps one day could benefit from their anti-viral qualities.

Not surprisingly, McReynolds' work has been supported by 11 grants from organizations such as the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation. However, she credits much of the success and continued developments in her lab to her team of student co-researchers, who take part in every step of the process. Since 2001, she’s mentored 26 high school, undergraduate and graduate students in her laboratory.

“I’m very lucky to have students that have stayed to research in my lab because they’ve become very experienced and good at what they do,” McReynolds said. “They are also picking up skills that extend far beyond research. The critical thinking skills they've gained don’t just apply to science, but to all aspects of life.”

Critical thinking is necessary to make adjustments needed to reach desired outcomes. But it also gives projects a life of their own.

As students work in the lab, the success and direction of their project can take them down paths completely different from what was expected.” McReynolds said.“I have a good idea of where the research is going, but this is something that can last my entire career and beyond.”

Cal State Fullerton biologist Math Cuajungco’s project is in an entirely different stage as it focuses on pinpointing the cause of a rare genetic disorder. But Cuajungco and his team of undergraduate co-researchers may have discovered why the genetic disorder, called Muclipidosis type 4, severely impairs patients’ vision and muscular function.

His research group found that Muclipidosis cells contain a build-up of excess toxins, particularly zinc, that would normally be flushed out of a healthy cell. Therefore, they theorize that Muclipidosis patients may benefit from reducing the excess zinc inside the cells using a drug that specifically targets zinc.

Pinpointing the exact cause of the disease is the first step to drug development, because to determine the best treatment options, the disease needs to be fully understood.

Cuajungco’s students become independent after one semester in his lab as they quickly master research methods and use of specialized lab equipment. Many, such as CSUF student Jonathan Eichelsdoerfer, have gone on to start their own independent projects.

Eichelsdoerfer worked in Cuajungco’s lab last year and is currently an intern at UC Irvine and scholar in CSUF’s Bridges to Stem Cell program. He wrote his own research grants to receive the funding needed to work on his project full-time and attended symposiums where his work received recognition throughout scientific communities.

“CSUF has plenty of research opportunities for students that I was excited to take advantage of,” Eichelsdoerfer said. “However, my work on this project was on top of a heavy academic load and I spent long nights in the lab after classes ended and came in on the weekends.”

It’s clear that his hard work paid off. But Eichelsdoerfer says he feels the most grateful to be a part of something that will eventually benefit others.

CSUF student Jonathan Eichelsdoerfer in the lab of Math Cuajungco“Research is the pathway to many miracles of modern medicine,” said his mentor, Dr. Cuajungco. “If students can see this research and realize the potential effects it may have, they will be more interested in the scientific fields.”

Undergraduates mentored by McReynolds and Cuajungco have gone on to medical school, accepted positions in biotechnology and pharmaceutical corporations, and pursued doctorates. The many hours spent in their lab enhance the learning experience and open new doors for both students and scientific development.