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Mount Students Get a Jump on Research Opportunities

qpcrEarly exposure to innovative scientific instruments provides exceptional research opportunities for Mount St. Mary’s University students, and this hands-on experience — with tools like the Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction (qPCR) instrument — is expanding their research knowledge.

The qPCR instrument is an extremely useful tool allowing students and faculty researchers to track the activation of specific genes — a highly-valued tool in any laboratory, but especially so for university undergraduate students.

The Mount’s School of Natural Science and Mathematics was awarded a $33,325 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Instrumentation Program and acquired the qPCR instrument in 2011. Mount science faculty members Kathryn Dye, Ph.D., Christine McCauslin, Ph.D., Jennifer Staiger, Ph.D., and Dana Ward, Ph.D., were co-authors of the grant, and each use the qPCR in their research studies.

“Rapid advances in genetic and genomic research have created considerable demand for individuals trained in biotechnology, genetics, biochemistry and cell biology,” says Staiger, associate professor of biology and chair of the department of science. “The acquisition of this type of instrumentation is helping our science faculty meet the challenges of improving undergraduate education in both in the classroom and research laboratory.”

According to Ward, assistant professor of biology, the Mount offers what most schools do not — actual undergraduate experience using the qPCR.

“Exposing students to this technology, both in terms of the theory behind how the technique works, as well as the hands-on process of running the qPCR experiment, provides them with a leg-up when they seek internships, job interviews, or graduate school interviews,” says Ward. “Undergraduate training is part of the Mount’s mission and possessing the qPCR instrument allows us to address this mission in a new and exciting way.”

Mount science and biology students receive an early introduction to the qPCR instrument in their second year of study. Because of the low student-faculty ratio at the Mount, science professors are able to work with students individually and provide real-time experience with the qPCR technique.

Biology and biochemistry majors Timothy Cox C’13 and Ian Soller C’13 are finding the qPCR instrumental in their Senior Honors Projects.

“I have been using it to study how ‘turned on’ different genes are in normal healthy smooth muscle cells versus smooth muscle cells from patients with pulmonary hypertension.” says Soller.

Cox says using the qPCR technique offers the ability to quantitatively measure the amplification levels of each gene, which gives him a much better idea of the original gene expression level in the cell. Because of this, he is able to gather more accurate data — extending his research further than previously possible.

Having this experience in undergraduate courses also offers critical insight as students prepares for the future.

“Getting hands-on experience in the lab is extremely important for medical school. It gives an understanding and knowledge of cellular biology that will provide a strong foundation as I become a doctor,” says Cox “I expect my exposure and use of the qPCR to help me understand the technology and science behind what I do as a doctor, including the role of medicine and other treatments in the health of my patients."

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