The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that about one-third of American adults are obese. Albion College junior Katie Pickworth hopes to use funding from the National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Scholarship Program to determine if there are psychological and neurological triggers that can be linked to the condition.
"The research is not going to be easy, but I think there are things going on in people’s brains that lead them to become overweight through excessive eating," Pickworth, a product of Columbus, Ohio, and the Columbus School for Girls, said. "People who have never been overweight don’t understand it is beyond an overweight individual to control how much they are eating."
Pickworth, one of 13 recipients of the NIH award, receives a scholarship and internship. In January, she will be matched with a mentor with whom she will work for 10-week periods over the next two summers, and for every year she receives the $20,000 scholarship Pickworth is obligated to work for the NIH for a year.
A number of Albion College students remain on campus every summer to complete scholarly work funded by the Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity (FURSCA). The summer experiences of chemistry majors Erica Bennett, ’13, and Casey Waun, ’13 were enhanced when they joined professors Vanessa McCaffrey and Nicolle Zellner on a trip to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where they conducted experiments to investigate the role of impacts on simple organic molecules.
The research, funded by grants from NASA’s Astrobiology Institute and the American Astronomical Society, is to examine how organic molecules change in impact events. The Albion delegation and Johnson technicians worked together to use the center’s hypervelocity impact technology to “shock” a sample of sugars by firing a projectile at a metal target holding the sample. The pressure from the impact of a projectile hitting the target’s steel plug has the ability to change the sugar placed inside the target, which the scientists hope will provide insight to the origin of life.
The trip to Houston occurred near the end of the students’ 10-week FURSCA experience that ran from May 21-July 29. Bennett and Waun spent most of the summer analyzing the samples that came back from McCaffrey and Zellner’s winter trip to NASA’s Ames Research Facility in California. Bennett, who noted she will analyze the samples from Johnson as part of an independent study during Albion’s fall semester, said teamwork was vital on the brief trip to Johnson as the group had to work through hardware complications to get four shots fired.
Though the students are entering their junior years, it is never too early to be looking forward to graduate school, and Bennett and Waun both said they expect the FURSCA experience to give them an advantage in the competitive application process. Waun said she will move on to different projects while Bennett will continue astrochemical research in hopes of working for NASA someday.
“I don’t know if I want to pursue space chemistry as a career, but I would like to go to graduate school for chemistry research,” Waun, a native of Allen Park, Mich., said. “[The FURSCA project] opened the door to research and now I would like to continue to get my feet wet and decide what kind of chemistry I’m most interested in.”
Almost every day, I look at my watch, feeling like I have been there for a few hours, and all of a sudden it is 5 o'clock. I also really like the idea that the work I am doing could potentially help a great deal of people, one reason I want to go into medicine. I have been interning this summer at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center in Ann Arbor. It's an amazing experience for an undergraduate student and I feel very lucky to have been awarded this opportunity!
Most importantly, the skills I have gained from this experience are invaluable to my goal for a career in medicine. I have learned how to thaw, treat, and grow cell cultures, and then isolate their RNA. My research lab doesn't come with answers in the back of a book, or correct or incorrect direction to take at each step. I even used to hate using a microscope in class, but in the research lab, I've really grown to like it.