As research experiences and internships around the nation were canceled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Assistant Professor Michael Coronado picked up the phone.
He wanted to make sure that Whitman College’s first two fellows in the Whitman-Mayo Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program didn’t miss out on the chance to work with Mayo Clinic. So he reached out to DeLisa Fairweather ’87, his mentor and director of Translational Cardiovascular Research at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.
“We wanted to make sure that our Whitman-Mayo students still received an excellent research experience despite the situation with COVID,” Coronado said. The result is a partnership that allows the fellows — senior biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology (BBMB) majors Rudo Ndamba and Ngan Tran — to work with Fairweather and her graduate students remotely from Walla Walla.
Ndamba, who is from Harare, Zimbabwe, conducted her research fellowship on a clinical study related to hypertension and vitamin D, and analyzed the role of sex differences. Tran, who is originally from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is doing a research project on CoxsakievirusB3 (CVB3)-induced myocarditis, a type of heart disease that can cause sudden death. This research is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Coronado is a collaborator with Fairweather on the projects.
Whitman supported the move to a virtual experience, allowing Coronado to use the same endowment funds to pay the students’ research stipends. He was also able to use his NIH-funding to help fund Tran’s technology needs to conduct genomic sequencing data computation and analysis. Ndamba was provided a computer from Whitman to complete her fellowship.
"Performing research is one of the best ways to learn new skills and practice the material learned in the classroom. It also provides real world experience that can be utilized in many different careers,” Coronado said. “I wanted to make sure that the Whitman-Mayo students were able to still have this experience. I know my own career direction and future first started with this kind of research experience. They can have a lifelong impact.”
In addition to their research, the students were also able to attend a month of webinars and workshops sponsored by Mayo Clinic with the other student fellows.
"In the virtual program, we’re participating in experimental design and mindfulness programming, receive training in dialogue methodology for communicating science with others and being introduced to the cutting-edge science of Mayo Clinic,” Tran said. “I was impressed how Mayo faculty organized the program in such way that resembles the real experience — as if I really went over to Florida — while staying safe at home."
Working Scientists by Summer
Tran knew she wanted to study biomedical science. She declared as a BBMB major two months after starting at Whitman. She chose Whitman because of the quality of the BBMB program, and the available research experiences, such as the college’s partnership with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Tran began working in Coronado’s lab in 2019. Her work focuses on beta-adrenergic signaling pathways in physiological and pathological conditions. This summer, she’s expanding that to take a closer look and the role of calcium independent pathways in meditating physiological mitochondrial fission.
“I’m really curious about the world. Doing science, you have to go through steps — formulate a research question, develop a feasible experimental design and have a hypothesis in place,” she said.
This is her first time doing data analysis, and she was worried she wouldn’t like it, but is finding that she enjoys the challenge.
“It is bringing me out of my comfort zone. I’m getting a sense of who I am as a scientist,” she said. “I thought it would be really hard to do computational projects. I didn’t really have any exposure to bioinformatics before. It’s a whole new experience.”
In Ndamba's case, she isn’t just new to the data part of research, she’s new to research altogether. She transferred to Whitman last year, and hadn’t previously had the opportunity to conduct hands-on research. Last summer, she had the opportunity to work with biology Professor Dan Vernon doing plant research.
“I didn’t really know what research was. Growing up, I was told to find a job that will make you money — you’re a doctor, an engineer, a nurse or a teacher. Everything else is considered an invaluable degree,” she said. Working with Vernon, she discovered other options. “I was looking at plant genes and database. It was more about procedure and genomics.”
The experience taught Ndamba that she wasn’t interested in being a plant geneticist, but she was interested in doing more research. Now with Mayo, she’s again learning new skills.
“I have always dismissed things like working with software as too difficult or ‘for professionals,’ but every day I am learning that just by being open to learning I can achieve so much,” Ndamba said. She enjoys getting to test her hypothesis in the data and see results. Ultimately, she’d like to earn a doctorate and continue to dig into research, but she’s still figuring out the focus.
“I’m in a place where what I want is evolving, because my passions are evolving. Being a BBMB major, I’m getting exposed to a lot of other sciences that I never thought I’d be interested in,” she said.
And that’s the whole point of experiences like this, Coronado said. Along with benefiting Fairweather’s medical research, it also built valuable skills for these student researchers.
“The work they did was more than just data analysis. It involved weekly lab meetings, combing through vast amounts of scientific literature, developing skills/methodology for the data analysis, and presenting the data to their mentors,” Coronado said. “These are some of the most important parts of performing research and learning how to become a scientist.”