my student experience

A Lifelong Dream of a Career in Medicine Gets an Early Start Through Research with NH-INBRE

Maria Cimpean '13, a Biology major with a double minor in Chemistry and International Studies from Ludus, Romania, is conducting research funded through a federal grant designed to enhance biomedical research training and opportunities across New Hampshire. Colby-Sawyer is a partner in the newly formed New Hampshire IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (NH-INBRE), a program designed to enhance biomedical research training and opportunities in the state. The five-year, $15.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health has funded a research network aross New Hampshire. Maria is working with Professor of Natural Sciences Bill Thomas, Ph.D., on the research project “Analysis of α-catenin functions in the regulation of cadherin–based adhesion strength.” She and two other research assistants presented their research at a poster session at the first NH-INBRE conference held August 1-2, 2011.

When not in the lab, Cimpean is active on campus as a member of the Biology Club, Cross Cultural Club, and leading Admissions tours through the Key Association. She studied in Strasbourg, France with the Global Beginnings program as a first-semester freshman and is a member of the Alpha Chi National Honors Society. As a member of the Wesson Honors Program at Colby-Sawyer, she has been awarded two IDEA Fund grants for independent research on organic bee-keeping.

How did you get involved with NH-INBRE?

I have had a class each semester with Professor Thomas, and he was even my advisor for a while. I did really well in his BIO 106 class and he knew I was looking for a way to get more practical experience right here on campus. He told me about the project he was going to start once he got the grant money, so I got involved as soon as possible. He has always been a great professor, advisor and mentor to me, and this project basically guarantees that I will keep benefiting from his guidance and knowledge until I graduate.

What does INBRE mean to you?

INBRE has given me the opportunity to get involved in a research project early on in my college years. To me, INBRE means the first step to establishing a research culture at Colby-Sawyer. Through INBRE, students can get involved in biomedical research at a small liberal arts school. You get the liberal arts experience, the personal attention due to the small class sizes, and get to work on a research project right here on campus. To me, that is just exceptional.

What skills are required for this research and what are your responsibilities?

The skills required are mostly basic laboratory skills such as making solutions and pipetting and familiarity with tissue culture techniques. My responsibilities range from simply keeping the cell cultures alive and going, to working on developing the assay. I sometimes do administrative work as well as preparatory work, which includes making stock solutions or sterilizing equipment.

What Colby-Sawyer courses have you found most helpful in fulfilling your duties?

All of my laboratory courses have contributed to the basic lab skills that any science student should have. There are some courses that involve writing and research essays that have helped me write clearly, be more organized, and just generally express myself better. I can definitely see the advantages of a liberal arts education.

What have you enjoyed most, and what have you found most challenging about your research?

I think the days any research assistant enjoys most are those when things actually go right in the lab but I learned a lot from the worst days. I came back to the lab one day after the weekend to discover something strange growing in some of the cell culture flasks in the incubator. Professor Thomas was in France collecting data through the dual pipette assay so I was alone in the lab for the rest of the week. Not an ideal situation, as you might suspect.

I believed I was dealing with a fungal contamination (I knew it wasn't bacteria), so I turned to my good friend Google for clues. I documented the contamination and was able to get Professor Thomas's confirmation that it is a fungus. I was not going to make any assumptions and certainly no mistakes with this! After some more research and advice from my professor, I had learned more about fungal contaminations than I ever thought I would. At least now I had instructions on how to get rid of it. It took me a whole week, but the incubator is now fungus-free.

What have you learned and what skills have you developed doing this research project?

I learned tissue culture techniques, but most importantly, I learned what research is really like. You have to be patient and perseverant in order to do this sort of work and enjoy it. Also, you have to be really into your research topic. That's what gets you through the worst days. My hopes are that we will get more students involved and get a functional assay so that we can collect data.

What has this experience taught you about yourself and your field of study?

One valuable lesson I learned is that in research, things usually take longer than you think they are going to take. There always seems to be something unexpected that you obviously didn't plan for, but the unexpected makes for a great learning experience. You learn a lot about yourself and feel more confident after it's all over.

Will this research project confirm or change your career plans?

I've known medicine is where I belong and it is what I see myself doing for the rest of my life. What has changed after being involved in this research project is that I am now considering an M.D.-Ph.D. program so that I can combine the clinical experience with some research work. I will most likely look for a clinical research internship for next summer to see if that is the right path for me.

Read about Colby-Sawyer students presenting research at the first annual conference for New Hampshire IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (NH-INBRE), held Aug. 1-2 at the Mountain View Grand Resort and Spa in Whitefield, N.H., here. Nearly 150 students and faculty convened to kick off the two-day event, which showcased students' presentations.