Undergraduate biochemists gain unique opportunities through new summer research program

Young researcher in lab coat with older scientist in lab, looking at microscopic samples slides.
Prescott Jeckel, in lab coat, a junior in the new Biochemistry Summer Research Program (BSRP) sponsored by the Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology, looks over lab specimens with mentor Professor Gustavo MacIntosh. Photos by Logan Norris, Iowa State University.

AMES, IA -- A new summer program for promising young Iowa State University researchers will celebrate its first year with a showcase Thursday, Sept. 8, during which students will present their work and findings to mentors, peers and proud parents. Hosted by the Stupka Undergraduate Research Symposium, the public event will take place from 4-6 p.m., in the Molecular Biology Building on campus, room 1414.  

Sponsored by the Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology, the Biochemistry Summer Research Program (BSRP) supported nine biochemistry students during its inaugural year. To apply, candidates pitched a short research proposal describing a plan of work with a faculty mentor.

In addition to engaging deeply in their research topics, the selected students attended weekly workshops focused on professional skill-building. They honed their presentations, receiving feedback on the effectiveness of slide sets and verbal delivery. They were challenged to limit technical jargon and encouraged to consider how to represent their project to prospective bosses or other undergraduates who might have an interest in a biochemistry career.

Students and mentors

Prescott Jeckel, a junior, worked with Professor Gustavo MacIntosh. Jeckel started working part-time in MacIntosh’s lab last school year. His research at Iowa State has focused on how plants sustain growth through cellular scavenging and recycling of phosphorus. The study has implications for how plants adapt to environmental conditions.

He became interested in agricultural biochemistry in fifth grade, when he did a science fair project on the impact of pesticide drift on soybeans. “I kept on studying the topic and eventually took my project to the international level,” said Jeckel, who grew up on a family farm in Illinois. “I feel like this summer’s experience already gives me an advantage when it’s time to market myself after graduation.”

“Prescott has been great to work with,” said MacIntosh. “Undergraduates can be very capable young scientists. Offering opportunities for meaningful experiential learning is an important part of my job here at Iowa State.”

Zheng Xue, a senior BSRP participant, worked with Associate Professor Walter Moss. Xue’s summer was spent deciphering functional elements of an RNA mechanism connected to cancers, including prostate and breast cancer.

“This is a great program that gives students a real taste of what it’s like to conduct research full-time,” Moss said. “During the school year, undergraduates have limited time to spend in a lab. I think they will come out of this experience knowing if science is something they really want to pursue.”

Professor Olga Zabotina worked with senior Lauren Sichterman, whose research focused on profiling cell wall components of cotton to better understand molecular factors that contribute to fiber quality.

“Lauren was involved in the project during her spring semester and learned most of the required techniques in cell wall extraction, fractionation and analyses,” Zabotina said. “The summer program allowed her to gain experience and continue her project, which could have significant commercial value.”

Zabotina also mentored another BSRP participant, Cheng Ern Yap. A senior, Yap investigated recombinant cloning of enzymes involved in plant cell wall biosynthesis. In Yap’s proposal for the summer program, Zabotina credited the young researcher for her work to develop protocols for protein purification from golgi membranes, an important step in studying plant protein complexes.

Others who served as consultants included Mark Hargrove, Morrill Professor and current BBMB department chair; BBMB associate professors Eric Underbakke and Dipali Sashital; and Erik Goodale, in the Department of English.   

The program was funded primarily by the department and alumni, with additional support from mentors’ research project funds.

This summer’s complete cohort of BSRP participants and mentors (with funding sources indicated) are: 

  • Charlie Beaver (a BSRP Scholar), worked with Scott Nelson, associate professor;
  • Cheng Ern Yap (a Linder Family Scholar, worked with Olga Zabotina, professor;
  • Prescott Jeckel (a BSRP Scholar), worked with Gustavo MacIntosh, professor;
  • Ciaran Kelly (a Thilo Family Scholar), worked with Eric Underbakke, associate professor;
  • Braden Lewis (a BSRP Scholar), worked with Aubrey Mendonca, associate professor, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition;
  • Michelle Morford (a BSRP Scholar), worked with Reuben Peters, Distinguished Professor;
  • Lauren Sichterman (a Beitz Scholar), worked with Olga Zabotina, professor;
  • Grant Warren (a Thilo Family Scholar), worked with Julien Roche, associate professor.
  • Zheng Xue (a Linder Family Scholar), worked with Walter Moss, associate professor.

Resounding success

“Based on feedback from both the students and mentors who participated, the department considers the summer a resounding success,” said Professor and recent BBMB Department Chair Kristen Johansen, who has long advocated for such a program. She co-directed the new program with Claire Kruesel, undergraduate program coordinator for the department. The BSRP leaders are hopeful that funding will allow the program to continue in the future.

“One of the most valuable results of the program was confirmation that we have undergraduates ready to take on this level of work and benefit from the opportunities for growth it brings,” Johansen said.    

Woman in pink conferring in the laboratory with two young women in white lab coats, all wearing masks.
From left to right: Professor Olga Zabotina, a BSRP mentor, confers with biochemistry seniors Cheng Ern Yap and Lauren Sichterman, both participants in the summer program.