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STEM summer interns gain skills and confidence through hands-on experience

September 4, 2014

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Research conducted by summer interns at Gallaudet University has the potential to greatly impact the District and beyond – from cost-effective DNA fingerprint technology to the role of genetics in deafness, the storied Anacostia River, and the electronics that power our lives. 

On July 31, these students displayed the results of their months of hard work during a poster session in the Sorenson Language and Communication Center atrium, hosted by the Department of Science, Technology, and Mathematics, which operates the program. 

A project by intern Christine McBride, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, investigated cost-effective DNA forensic fingerprinting for use by undergraduate science majors and high school students to distinguish an individual’s DNA profile. The project was titled “Practical and inexpensive DNA fingerprinting for undergraduate science majors and high school students.”

Commercial kits used by forensics labs are too expensive for use in the classroom, and the simplified versions that are currently marketed to teachers do not accurately teach the science, McBride said.  

“We isolated short tandem repeats, or STR, regions of DNA, which are unique to each person,” she said. “That DNA can be used to identify a person for educational use, for paternity, to find missing people, and to solve crimes.” 

Another project focused on genetics and deafness: “Linguistic homogeny explains the recent increase in phenotypic deafness, but does not predict an increase in frequency of deafness alleles.” Interns Samir Jain, from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Eric Epstein, from the Rochester Institute of Technology, analyzed previous studies that showed an increased probability that deaf couples would have deaf children. They examined this theory and ran simulations that tracked the frequency of deafness and a deafness-causing allele, 35delG, which is one of two or more versions of a gene. 

Jain and Epstein found that in their simulations, the allele frequency did not increase to the level previously predicted.

“Previous research predicted the numbers for the deafness-causing allele would increase, but we found it would not, which surprised us,” Jain said. 

Their simulations showed that though deaf couples are more likely to have deaf children today than they were 200 years ago, because of the long history of deaf intermarrying deaf, this intermarriage is not altering the gene pool and is not increasing the frequency of the deafness-causing 35delG allele. 

This study is important because it will help geneticists better understand how rare alleles are transmitted and maintained in the gene pool, said Dr. Derek Braun, director of the Molecular Genetics Laboratory and professor of biology, who supervised both projects. 

Braun said the internship program, in its sixth year, also is important because deaf and hard of hearing people are grossly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. Through the program, Gallaudet helps support deaf students from Gallaudet and other colleges around the nation who want to pursue careers in STEM fields. 

“As of last year, 36 percent of our former trainees have entered graduate school in STEM fields, and another 14 percent were in post-baccalaureate programs in STEM,” Braun said. “Our summer interns have consistently reported wonderfully positive experiences and have left with a positive impression of science at Gallaudet.”

Interns supervised by biology professor Dr. Caroline Solomon monitored the water quality of the Anacostia River, which flows from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, Maryland, to Washington, D.C. The students participated in two projects, “Response to the Anacostia phytoplankton community to different nutrient treatments” and “Continuous water quality monitoring of the Anacostia River.” 

The first project examined what might promote algae blooms in the river that are caused by excessive levels of nutrients, which result from sewage and other pollutants washed into the river by rain and other means.

“What was different about our project was that we focused on organic nitrogen, while other scientists have focused on inorganic nitrogen,” said Amberlin Hines, from Gallaudet, who conducted the research alongside Elija Flores, of Arizona State University, Lauren Zager, of Western Illinois University, and research technician Muhammad Rubaiyat, ’09.

Flores and Zager also worked on the second project, which monitored the river’s water quality.

“Before I came to Gallaudet this summer, I knew that the Anacostia was a polluted river,” Flores said. “But I was surprised to learn that the nutrient levels were lower this year due to the lower amount of rainfall we have had.”

The students concluded from both projects that more attention is needed regarding organic nitrogen in water quality studies of the Anacostia if the District wants to achieve the goals of the D.C. Mayor’s Sustainability Plan of a fishable and swimmable river by 2025. 

Hines will share and present the results to various nonprofit organizations that help clean up the Anacostia.  

“The summer internship program is an excellent way to give young deaf and hard of hearing scientists the opportunity to conduct research in a supportive environment which allows them to ask questions and make mistakes because it is all a part of the learning process,” Solomon said. “The interns leave after the summer with more confidence in their abilities as scientists. I was very impressed by this year’s cohort and look forward to mentoring them as they explore graduate school opportunities and beyond.” 

Gallaudet students Christopher Mbochwa (100% supported by NSF Grant # DMR 1231319) and Amelework Habtemichael (100% supported by NSF Grant # DMR 1205608) worked with chemistry professor Dr. Paul Sabila on “Growth of molybdenum disulfide films on silicon wafers” Projects.  The research used nanomaterials, the study of the “super small” and which consists of the study and applications of materials with sizes less than 100 nanometers, one billion times smaller than a meter. Molybdenum disulfide nanomaterials are being studied as potential replacement of silicon in designing new generations of transistors and semiconductors that could be used to make faster, transparent, and more flexible electronic devices.

“The goal is to create the new generation of electronic devices using nanomaterials, which will make phones and computers more efficient,” Habtemichael said. 

“It is always a privilege to watch the students acquire critical research skills while making important contributions towards new scientific discoveries through their research projects,” Sabila said. “Our interns get hands-on experience on research and on using various analytical instrumentations that is essential to growing their skills as scientists. The skills they learned here will be critical while pursuing majors in science and later, when seeking employment in industries or proceed to graduate school.” 

Sabila’s students presented their research at Howard University on July 25, 2014. In August, Habtemichael presented at Cornell University while Mbochwa presented at Harvard University. They plan to continue working in Dr. Sabila’s research lab at Gallaudet.

Hines, Jain and Epstein, and Habtemichael and Mbochwa will present their research at the University Undergraduate Research Symposium in Chemical and Biological Sciences at the University of Maryland this October.

The popular summer internship program is in its sixth year. Admission is competitive, with applications from students at 22 different colleges and universities exceeding the number of positions available. 

Interns are paid by stipend, made possible by NASA/D.C. Space Grant Consortium, the Beverley Taylor Sorensen Student Fellowship, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Maryland Sea Grant (SA7528112), and the National Science Foundation OCE 1262374, IIS 0915268, DMR 1205608, and DMR 1231319.  

4 September 2014

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