November 20, 2014  

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Center SPURs Undergraduate Research at Southern Miss

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Biology professor Sandra Leal looks on as Southern Miss freshman Wisam 'Sam" Buti examines fruit fly speciemens in Leal's lab. The university is supporting undergraduate research with grants through its Center for Undergraduate Research. (University Communications photo by David Tisdale)

Wisam “Sam” Buti once held the fruit fly in contempt.

“I use to just think of them as that annoying fly that buzzed around your food,” said Buti, a University of Southern Mississippi freshman. Now the fruit fly represents the inspiration for her studies at the university and future in either medicine or scientific research – or both.

A recent graduate of Oak Grove High School in Hattiesburg, Buti found a home for her interest in biology in the research laboratory of Southern Miss professor Sandra Leal. The opportunity came through her high school’s Distinguished Scholars Program, which places upperclassmen with a mentor in an area of academic or career interest.

The focus of Leal’s research is to better understand the basic mechanics of how cells are assembled, with the fruit fly serving as a model system to study human genetics. Approximately 70 percent of the fly’s genes are similar to those of humans, and their eye development nearly mirrors that of the human eye.

“I really like biology, so I picked Dr. Leal’s lab,” said Buti, a Luckyday Scholar and student in the university’s Honors College. “After I started, I realized it was my calling. Now I’ve established a base of research here, and I have an advantage as I begin college knowing how research works.”

Southern Miss supports research opportunities for undergraduates like Buti through its Center for Undergraduate Research. Established in 2011, the center’s mission is the enhancement of the undergraduate experience through the promotion and support of student-faculty collaborations in research, creative projects and scholarship.

The center recently launched its Eagle Scholars Program for Undergraduate Research (Eagle SPUR), which provides funding for independent research by an undergraduate student in collaboration with a faculty member. The program includes up to $20,000 in research grants for project proposals submitted by qualified students in the fall and spring semesters.

Funding can help defray research costs associated with acquiring equipment and other materials, and travel to academic conferences to present their work, among other expenses.

Dr. Marie Danforth, a Southern Miss professor of anthropology who serves as chair of the center’s steering committee, believes Eagle SPUR will boost the university’s undergraduate research profile.

“Undergraduates are capable of doing phenomenal research that is competitive with and at times superior to that of some graduate students. I’ve seen it presented at prestigious academic conferences, accepted and recognized by their peers,” she said. “That’s good not only for the student, but the universities and departments they represent.”

Buti plans to apply for funding from the center to support her research on eye development. A funding award would not only support her research, but be a significant accomplishment she can detail in her future curriculum vitae or resume.

“The center strengthens the university’s commitment to provide outstanding research and training opportunities for our students,” Leal said. “The importance of scientific research among university students is vital toward growing Mississippi’s economy and job growth well into the future.

“It’s encouraging as a faculty mentor to know that the center can help in preparing Sam and other undergraduate researchers in realizing careers in the sciences and other disciplines.”

In the past six years, Leal has trained 33 undergraduate researchers. She said half of these students are enjoying employment in the healthcare field or in science education, while the other half are enrolled in either professional graduate school or medical school training programs.

“When most students begin scientific research, for example, they are largely intimidated with a preconceived idea of science drawn from popular media culture, such as the stereotype stuffy scientists in white coats curing a fatal disease,” Leal said. “But once a student appreciates that researchers are regular, normal people from all walks of life with diverse interests, they realize how it can cater to their own interests and questions.”

Undergraduate researchers also have the opportunity to have their work published in prestigious academic journals, which Leal said is critical in their development and acceptance as accomplished scholars and researchers.

Buti has already earned a co-authorship on a manuscript submitted to the journal Mechanisms of Development in September entitled “The T-box Transcription Factor Midline Functions within Cell Survival Signaling Pathways During Eye Development.”

“It’s critical that students begin research as early as possible during college as a freshman or sophomore to see the publication of their research before they graduate,” Leal said. “Earning a respected co-authorship on one or more research publications during their junior or senior years will increase their chances of being accepted into medical school or a prestigious, competitive graduate school program.”

The appeal of research for Buti is trying to answer a research question and doing all of the work needed to reach a conclusion. As a role model and mentor, Leal’s guidance is important in helping her meet her research and career goals. “For me, Dr Leal is my ‘science mother.’ She wants me to understand all of the little things that are important in research that a regular mentor might not take the time to do,” Buti said.

The deadline for spring 2014 awards for Eagle SPUR is Nov. 4, and application materials are available on the center’s website: http://www.usm.edu/research/center-undergraduate-research. Students who are interested in the program may also contact their faculty advisor.