It was late on a Friday afternoon when veterinary student Jennine Cornelius rushed into the commons of Valley Hall after a hectic week, and she still had to present her scientific poster about West Nile virus. Cornelius is one of 40 "STARs in Science" who presented the results of summer research projects October 12 as part of the Students Training in Advanced Research (STAR) program.
STAR participants compete for selection, develop research projects with faculty mentors, work full-time on the project during 10 weeks in the summer, and earn a $6,000 fellowship. The program familiarizes veterinary students with specialized laboratory skills, library research, ethics and other aspects of biomedical research, including scientific communication. The October event was the stage for these students to present their results to peers, faculty and staff.
Cornelius’ project concerned a new laboratory model for the study of West Nile virus. Aaron Brault, Cornelius’ faculty mentor, stressed the learning opportunity and the real-world value of the STAR activities. "A defined project gave Jennine experience in laboratory aspects that she hadn’t done," he said. "She manipulated some infectious clones of a virus, investigated their growth potential in particular avian cell types, and generated new data for an in vitro model that may help us predict how certain viruses will replicate in live birds." He said, "It’s a successful project. It will be submitted as part of a publication."
Student projects reflect broad applications of veterinary medicine and science, from Cornelius’ lab experiments to data analysis and clinical studies. In companion animals, students investigated the canine trachea, cats with cystitis and heart disease, antimicrobial resistance in dogs and even guinea pig health.
Several faculty members introduced STAR participants to veterinary aspects of human disease: Nicole Baumgarth on viral infection, N. James MacLachlan with Rift Valley fever, Isaac Pessah on using the mouse as a model for disease, and Tom North in AIDS research, among others.
Taking a different approach, participants investigated ecosystem health issues such as toxoplasma transmission, the role of wetlands in controlling the spread of cryptosporidium, water quality issues in Tanzania, tracking of microbes in coastal waterways, and other topics.
Kent Lloyd, program coordinator and associate dean of research and graduate education, explained the goals of the program. "We hope to identify and nurture research interests among our students. The STAR initiative offers an important strategy for recruitment of veterinarians considering the research path."
While some "STARs" go on to graduate study, the program benefits all future veterinarians. Sara Sammons is already working on a master’s degree in comparative pathology, while Georgette Shields and Megan Burke expect to go directly into equine practice. All three performed orthopedic research in horses under the guidance of Susan Stover, director of the JD Wheat Veterinary Orthopedic Research Laboratory. Burke began an experiment to measure bone density in horses with osteoporosis. One of her lessons is patience: While she has gathered all the samples required, her project will continue throughout the school year as images are taken, compared and evaluated for possible application under field conditions.
Shields pored over racetrack data and compared her information with previous findings on the role of intense exercise on bone injuries in racehorses. She learned about study design and statistical practice along the way. Interacting with peers and lab personnel also aided Shields’ professional growth. She said, "With this background, we [as practitioners] can evaluate information in scientific literature with a more critical eye and look at cases in practice knowing how to investigate a problem if we need to."
Sammons, Shields and Burke met weekly with Stover and studied a textbook on scientific writing. Sammons explained that, to make the most of scientific inquiry, "You should draw from as many sources as you can. We had weekly writing sessions and journal club in this lab. Dr. Stover wants us to publish our work."
Students appreciate that research ultimately helps all animals, even when a STAR project is small in scope. Amanda Irish studied population genetics in red-shouldered hawks. "I did a microcosm of a project," she explained. "Eventually, the results will be published and I can stay involved. If the red-shouldered hawk becomes differentiated [from its Eastern relatives], it will impact their conservation in California."
Similarly, a project to gain more information about irido-like viruses in white sturgeon might one day help the aquaculture industry answer questions about other sturgeon species, said Kevin Kwak, who described his development of a new diagnostic test as contributing to "herd health" in fish species.
Jennine Cornelius, already hooked on research after working several years doing early-stage genetics studies in industry, knows that research is where she wants to be. She was pleased with her project, which helped her learn new aspects of her chosen field. "I was able to complete my study. It is fascinating that my in vitro results mimic the in vivo data."
Bennie Osburn, dean, congratulated all the participants and encouraged them to consider research positions to refill the faculty ranks as the current generation retires. "We need you," he stated.