Undergraduate research in MSU Biology

Sydney Houlton, a biology major at Minot State who works with assistant biology professor Zeni Shabani, shows off a lab mouse that is used in Shabani’s research into genes that make people more susceptible to meth addiction. Andrea Johnson/MDN

Minot State University uses the logo “Be Seen, Be Heard” and that philosophy has carried over to the opportunities that its students receive for hands-on experience in their fields of interest.

In the biology department, students often have the opportunity to work in the lab with their instructors, to participate in research or present at science conferences.

Students such as biology major Sydney Houlton, who works as a lab assistant to assistant biology professor Zeni Shabani, say that the experience will be of great help in their future careers, whether they go on to graduate school or to medical school or work in another field.

Shabani is studying genetic risks for methamphetamine use, in partnership with Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore.

“We work with a mouse model system,” said Shabani, who has a few students working with him in the lab each semester.

It is the job of students like Houlton to assist in the lab protocols, to help gather and analyze data, to aid in designing experiments and to maintain the lab.

Houlton has been working with Shabani for the past four years and has been published in a peer-reviewed journal with other researchers. They also present at a conference held at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Student research at Minot State is funded in part through the North Dakota IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence Institutional Development Award.

“It has been a fantastic opportunity for me to gain work experience,” said Houlton.

Shabani said that a gene present on the tenth chromosome in a mouse harbors some of the same genetic risk factors for meth as a gene that is also present in humans. The studies that are conducted on the lab mice might eventually help researchers to develop a medicinal drug that can be used in treatment of humans who are addicted to methamphetamine and prone to relapse back into use of the drugs.

Since many addicts are prone to relapse, a drug that helps them to stay clean would have tremendous societal consequences, said Shabani.

Biology majors Brody Burnette and Adedayo Adelete both work as lab assistants to biology professor Chris Keller, who studies the mechanisms of growth and development control in plants.

Keller is particularly interested in how auxins, a class of plant hormones, affect the growth of a mutated version of the plant “arabidopsisthaliana,” a plant which Keller calls the “fruit fly of plant biology.”

Lab students like Burnette and Adelete oversee the differences in growth in the dark and light between mutated plants and normal versions grown in the wild.

Keller said the experience of working in research as undergraduates trains students to generate their own experiments, to troubleshoot when problems arise and to think critically when problems arise.

Adelete said that he has also learned patience when it comes to research, since there will be failures with research and the experiment might not produce the expected results.

Both Burnette, who hails from Binscarth, Man., and Adelete, who is from Abuja, Nigeria, said the experience has been valuable, both in what they learn and on resumes. Both men plan to attend medical school.

Medical schools and graduate programs are currently highly interested in candidates who can cite research experience at the undergraduate level, of which Minot State provides an abundance.

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