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Student research earns awards, points way to careers

By

Steve Des Georges

“My research could potentially lead to drugs that could be used to combat heart disease.”
Zachary Hernandez, ASU New College student researcher

One is working on a cure for a type of cancer, another looking into the effects of vitamin D on cardiac disease. Others take their places over the microscope to study omega-3 fatty acids, drill deeper into bone mineral density, and even test “anti-aging” vitamin prospects.

They are the undergraduate student researchers under the watchful eye of Peter Jurutka, assistant professor in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. Two of those students are well on their way to medical careers, spurred on by the research opportunities they have been provided, the prospect of solving real-world challenges, and recent awards they have received from their professional peers.

Julie Furmick, a Peoria native who graduated from Peoria Sunrise Mountain High School, is a New College senior and a fellow in ASU’s SOLUR (School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research) program. Vice president of the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) at ASU’s West campus, has been recognized by the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) for her research on curtailing or alleviating altogether the side effects of Bexarotene, a secondary medication used to treat patients suffering from Cutaneous T-cell Lymphoma. Her presentation at the ABRCMS conference earned her best-in-class honors in the chemical science division. She was one of 20 who were awarded national recognition, chosen from an entry field of 148. The award complements her Outstanding Student Research award in April at the Arizona-Nevada Academy of Science annual research conference in Tucson. That award came on the heels of a first-place research effort as recognized by ASU’s West campus faculty and students at the annual ASU West Research Expo.

“These awards really mean a great deal to me, both professionally and personally,” says Furmick, who aspires to attend medical school.  “It is nice to be recognized, and I know it will further my research and reinforces that the work I am doing is important and of interest to professionals in the field.

“Professionally, I now have something to show for my research. A lot of the people, particularly those I will be competing against for entry to medical school, also do research, but may not have the awards or may not be published,” she adds in reference to her Bexarotene research that has been published in the prestigious Journal of Medicinal Chemistry.

Another standout student researcher is Zachary Hernandez, a New College senior and SOLUR fellow who expects to graduate in May with a B.S. in life sciences.  Like Furmick, he eyes medical school and eventually a practice in clinical medicine. A National Hispanic Scholar, he is researching the previously unsuspected role of vitamin D in heart tissue. His research presentation at the annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) was good enough to earn him the only honors awarded in the endocrinology research section at the Dallas conference.

“Vitamin D is a hormone and we know that it plays an important role in the kidneys, gut and bone,” he says. “A couple discoveries showed that it may play a previously unknown role in the heart. My research works to identify comodulators of the vitamin D receptor in heart tissue, in effect further explaining exactly how vitamin D does what it does in the heart.

“My research could potentially lead to drugs that could be used to combat heart disease.”

Born and raised in nearby Glendale, Hernandez attended Glendale Mountain Ridge High School and enrolled at ASU’s West campus, seeing his life sciences major as a ticket to a medical career. His research opportunities and subsequent SACNAS recognition are, he believes, the icing on the cake.

“The research experience here in New College and with Dr. Jurutka has made me a more attractive applicant for medical school,” says Hernandez, who also attended last year’s SACNAS meeting in Salt Lake City and has already been accepted to attend the University of Arizona College of Medicine and the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.  “It also afforded me the chance to hone my diagnostic and critical thinking skills, both of which will be integral in my career as a physician. Plus, SACNAS is a community of minority scientists and professionals that has helped me in applying and gaining admission into medical school. The research and the SACNAC conferences helped me form my future career aspirations.”

Research in Jurutka’s lab begins with a focus area he helps his students choose. They learn to perform various experiments and are expected to analyze their initial results and to help design subsequent experiments. Once students have a substantial body of research with tangible results, they are encouraged to present their work at appropriate conferences, including the ASU West Research Expo, as well as regional and national scientific meetings. Finally, when results are published in scholarly journals, students are included as authors and are expected to actively participate in the writing and editing of these manuscripts.

For Jurutka, a founding faculty member at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix in Partnership with Arizona State University, the success of Furmick and Hernandez helps cast a spotlight on the importance of student research.

“Undergraduate student research is important because it provides an opportunity for students to employ the theories they learn in their core courses in a real-world environment.

“Science lab courses provide practical experience; the experiments in a lab course are mostly structured to have a certain outcome. In the research laboratory, that certain outcome is not guaranteed, and when experimental outcomes differ from expectations, students must translate their abstract knowledge into workable solutions. The successful translation of knowledge into real-world solutions is a skill set that will make our New College students valuable and highly desirable employees in a 21st-century workplace after they graduate.”

Jurutka points to students like Furmick and Hernandez and notes that through their engagement in active undergraduate research they are learning and developing competencies that they will employ in graduate and professional schools and later within the workplace.

“The research they are conducting is also significant in that it will further develop the real-world medical knowledge base, and our students are thus motivated and invested in their research and its success.”