SMB People

SMB People

  • Student Research, Retention Thrive with Team Mentoring

    by Steve Nakata, WSU News

    Jacob Lizarraga

    While many of their friends spent the summer performing typical student jobs like waiting tables or stocking the shelves in their hometown grocery store, three Washington State University seniors donned white lab coats and helped advance cutting edge research in reproductive biology.

    The students are participants in WSU’s highly-acclaimed Team Mentoring Program (TMP). Through a combination of workshops, social events, and panel discussions and research opportunities, TMP provides underrepresented minority students majoring in STEM and health disciplines personalized support as a way to boost their retention and graduation rates.

    Since the program was established in 2007, the Office of Multicultural Student Services (MSS) reports TMP has helped 925 undergraduates, utilizing 125 student mentors and 30 faculty mentors.

    The program’s impact is well documented. MSS Director J. Manuel Acevedo said for the 2007 to 2014 cohort of active participants, 76-percent have or are on-track to graduate compared to 68-percent for those not active in the program. When looking at just engineering students, 69-percent of the active students have or are projected to graduate, as opposed to 55-percent who haven’t participated in TMP.

    Last year, TMP was a finalist for the national University Economic Development Association’s Award of Excellence. In the same year, TMP faculty mentors received WSU’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Distinguished Service Award.

    Discovering a passion for research

    Marleny Garcia and Joy Winuthayanon

    One late summer morning students Marleny Garcia, Jacob Lizarraga, and Karena De La Rosa scurried around the lab directed by WSU molecular biosciences professor Joy Winuthayanon. Each of them conducting separate experiments, but all trying to address one big issue--how problems related to female reproduction can be resolved.

    De La Rosa hails from a big family, the fifth child among 12 brothers and sisters. Her father went to college in his 30’s and has been a strong advocate for higher education ever since. She always knew she wanted to go to college.

    At WSU Karena wanted to try research, but didn’t know how until her TMP student mentor connected her with faculty mentor Phil Mixter, an associate professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences. Mixter is a key player in the TMP program helping to match interested students with faculty members in the sciences.

    “Now that I’m working in Joy’s lab, I realize I really like it and I’m pretty good at it,” said De La Rosa, who now aspires to become a researcher for a pharmaceutical company.

    Microbiology major Lazarraga described himself as going through the motions prior to becoming involved in TMP. He went to classes, studied, and hung out with friends. It wasn’t until he got involved in research that he truly understood the importance of what is being taught in the classroom.

    “Before I didn’t see how my biology and chemistry classes applied to the real world,” he said. “Now I can see that connection and it has sparked a passion that has driven me to do well in school.”

    Faculty important role models

    One of most valuable components of TMP is the opportunity for students to be mentored by faculty members.

    As TMP faculty mentors, Winuthayanon and Shaui Li, a postdoctoral fellow in Joy’s lab, teach the students about the world of research including what questions to ask, what equipment to use, and how to know if their experiments are successful.

    Karena De La Rosa

    “Joy has been such a good role model for me and is so good at what she does,” said Garcia. “When she explains things to me, she makes sure I understand it completely so that I’m actually learning.”

    Winuthayanon admits that taking on undergraduate students in the lab is time-intensive especially at the beginning, but says the reward at the end is well worth waiting for.

    “The students learn what it takes to work in a research lab and if conducting research is something they like to do,” she said. “I also benefit by gaining experience in training students and all the great work they contribute to the research we are doing in the lab.”

    She appreciates her school’s support for junior faculty by encouraging them to mentor undergraduate students.

    All three students say their faculty mentors have offered invaluable advice ranging from what they need to work on, how to get the most out of the curriculum, and the types of internships they need to be competitive on the job market.

    “When you see how dedicated these students are, you quickly realize this isn’t about you,” Li said. “It’s about wanting to help them flourish.”

    Networking makes all the difference

    Coming from the small town of Mattawa, Wash. where 90-percent of the population speaks Spanish, Garcia could have been destined to work in the surrounding orchards and vineyards like so many others she grew up with. But this first-generation student aspires to be a doctor and came to WSU to enroll in the pre-medicine program.

    “A big thing that can help you succeed in college is surrounding yourself with others who are successful,” Garcia said. “TMP is a great at connecting you with successful people.”

    De la Rosa recalled how scary it was to live away from her family for the first time and credits TMP for providing her another family at WSU.

    “It has given me the opportunity to meet amazing people who give you a push forward and a head start in everything,” she said.

    Impacting people’s lives

    Both the students and faculty mentors say there’s no substitution for gaining real lab experience in the STEM and health disciplines. It gives students more knowledge, more experience, and most of all, an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people.

    “The research I’m doing makes me feel really good because I know many people can’t have children and we’re working towards solutions for them,” said De La Rosa. “I feel like we’re making really good progress.”

    Lazarraga added, “It’s awesome to know that my research will be used to help people who are struggling to get pregnant. This is a lot bigger than me.”

    TMP research scholarships are supported by Boeing, AT&T and the WSU Colleges of Engineering and Architecture, Arts and Sciences, Veterinary Medicine, and Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences.

  • Fellowship Helps Fund a Love of Pathogens

    Story by Marcia Hill Gossard ’99, ’04

    Konkel lab

    Nick Negretti (left) and Dr. Mike Konkel

    In a light-filled laboratory, Nick Negretti grows bacteria.

    “I love pathogens,” says Negretti, who is a graduate student in the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences. “They are so interesting. In each of us, there are more bacterial cells than human cells,” he says. “And while most bacteria are helpful, there are a few that make us sick.”

    Negretti works in the lab of WSU professor Mike Konkel, a leading expert on the food-borne pathogen Campylobacter jejuni. Often found in the intestines of chickens, C. jejuni is the most common bacterial cause of human food poisoning in the world. Symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting that can sometimes result in death. In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control estimate 1.3 million people are infected each year. By understanding how bacteria make people ill, Konkel and Negretti’s work could help develop new therapies for disease prevention.

    But like most university labs, Konkel depends on grant money to fund ongoing, long-term research. When he learned there would be a gap in funding because of timing between grants, his lab was able to continue research without interruption because of funds from the Charles and Audrey Drake Fellowship*.

    “The funds from the Drake Fellowship really helped,” says Konkel. “This type of bridge funding is critical because preliminary research is necessary to apply for grant money.” Konkel and his team are now funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

    For Negretti, who began his undergraduate studies in the STARS program, it meant that he could continue his research and stay on track to graduate in 2019. STARS, which stands for Students Targeted toward Advanced Research Studies, gives exceptional undergraduate students the opportunity to begin doing research their first year and finish their doctorate in as few as seven years.

    “Coming to college I knew I wanted to do research, and the STARS program is a good way to get involved in research right from the beginning,” he says.

    Negretti came to WSU in August 2011 right out of high school, and had applied to the STARS program. “I didn’t get in my first semester,” he says. Undaunted, he applied again, was accepted, and went on to finish his bachelors of science in just three years. Now a graduate student, he has worked in Konkel’s lab almost from the beginning. “The best way to learn is to jump in feet first,” he says.

    In August 2016, Negretti and Konkel will visit the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Virginia where they will use one-of-a-kind, high-definition microscopes to understand better how C. jejuni bacteria bind to the host cells in the intestine.

    Host cells change their behavior because of the bacteria, says Negretti, and the only way to understand the tools bacteria use to get a cell to do something it wouldn’t normally do is with a high-definition microscope.

    “Nick is addressing questions that can only be answered using a highly specialized microscope,” says Konkel. “We are lucky to go to the Advanced Imaging Center at Janelia.”

    Negretti is hoping to learn more about how bacteria bind to the host cells in the intestine and how that interaction changes both the host cell and the bacterial cell. “It will give us a better idea how it [bacteria] manipulates the cell,” he says. “This is a very valuable piece of information.” That information will lead to new questions and answers. “Letting the science happen,” he says.

    After he graduates, Negretti wants a post-doctoral research position. After that, “I will see where life is,” he says. And where life and science take him.

    Charles H Drake
    *Funds from the Charles and Audrey Drake Fellowship in Honor of Dr. A.T. Henrici are awarded to promising researchers in microbial ecology. Charles Drake was a professor of Bacteriology and Public Health at WSU from 1944-1981 and studied under Dr. A.T. Henrici at the University of Minnesota.

Washington State University