Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program Elevates Diversity in the Life Sciences
When Tayler Smith entered UC Davis as a freshman two years ago, she knew she had a strong interest in life sciences research. But at the time, she had no idea what research was, or how it was carried out in the laboratory.
Fortunately, that’s no longer the case.
Smith—a neurobiology, physiology and behavior major— decided to pursue molecular biology research in November 2017. She joined the lab of Professor Keith Baar, Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior, and over the past summer, she worked to develop an innovative model of muscle loss.
“We want to learn how the muscle is losing mass in order to know how to help it gain and retain mass,” said Smith.
Members of Baar’s Functional Molecular Biology Lab study the processes that regulate muscle mass at a molecular level, with the goal of identifying molecules critical to the process. A component of that research is understanding atrophy, the loss of muscle mass.
Smith’s research project concerns the tibialis anterior, which is the muscle located in front of the shin. Using rats, the team developed a new model where they removed the opposing muscles to decrease the load on the tibialis anterior. Smith is trying to understand how this causes the tibialis anterior to waste away in the hope of preventing the loss of muscle.
Smith credits finding her path to Baar’s lab to the UC Davis Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program (BUSP), an enrichment program promoting diversity in the life sciences. Open to incoming freshmen, the two-year program seeks to increase retention of underrepresented minority, disadvantaged and disabled students in the life sciences across all four undergraduate colleges at UC Davis.
“It’s been an eye-opener, if you will, because I don’t have family who does research,” said Smith. “I’ve learned what research is and it’s been a really good experience learning how to be a research professional.”
Supporting diverse students
Since BUSP’s creation in 1988, over 1,500 freshmen and sophomores have benefited from the enrichment program. Each fall, roughly 50 freshmen join the new cohort of BUSP students. And there to greet them is Connie Champagne, the director of BUSP, and Heather Lawrence, the program’s academic advisor.
“One of the key aspects of the BUSP experience is the community,” said Champagne. “Students in BUSP will take their foundational courses with one another, so they have someone to study with and they have academic support that has been tailored for those individual classes.”
BUSP students are provided with academic support for introductory calculus, chemistry and biology. Additionally, students enroll in a lab skills course in the spring quarter of their freshmen year that leads into a faculty-mentored research experience during their sophomore year.
“The objective is that they feel more comfortable in a lab environment,” said Champagne. “We demystify the undergraduate research experience for these students and help them understand what’s expected from them as undergraduate researchers.”
To continue fostering cohesion among members, the program launched the BUSP Living Learning Community in fall 2017. “If they’re co-housed, I think it’s easier for them to study together and do social activities together,” said Champagne.
“When they first arrive on campus, they don’t know yet how instrumental they’re going to be for each other’s successes and the friendships that they’re going to form,” she added.
BUSP Honors Research
Upper-level students who are disabled or are from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds can get involved in BUSP Honors Research, a one-year program with a summer research component. Summer participants receive a $3,400 stipend to conduct research at a UC Davis campus laboratory for 10 weeks. The program is open to students who didn’t participate in the BUSP program.
One such student is junior Leib Lipowsky, a neurobiology, physiology and behavior major. Lipowsky spent the summer working in the lab of Professor Aldrin Gomes, Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior.
“My project is studying how ibuprofen affects liver cells and we’re looking at proteasome activity rates because the proteasome is responsible for protein degradation,” said Lipowsky. “The degradation of unwanted proteins is just as important as making new ones.”
The proteasome is linked to longevity, and inhibition and dysfunction of its activity leads to a myriad of diseases and premature death. Ibuprofen has been known to negatively affect the proteasome’s functionality, and the Gomes Lab previously conducted studies regarding how it affects heart cells. But the research has expanded to include other cell types in the body.
“Our hypothesis is that ibuprofen causes damage to every single tissue in the body; the heart is what manifests the damage first,” said Gomes. “Our idea is to determine if we can prove that such problems can occur in other tissues such as the liver.”
Lipowsky is running proteasome assays on liver tissue from mice and rats to understand how ibuprofen affects proteasome activity rates in liver cells.
According to Lipowsky, support from the BUSP Honors Research program has allowed him to use the summer to focus on research rather than finding a part-time job outside his research interests.
‘Some of the experiments, if I work very diligently and very quickly, still take several hours,” he said. “Right now, I’m able to run many experiments during the day because I have the support to be here for the entire day.”
Funding undergraduate life sciences research
For nearly 30 years, BUSP has been funded by external funding agencies, like the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Ever-evolving, BUSP employs a program evaluator to help guide the program’s direction to ensure it meets student needs. And BUSP students sign a tracking consent form, which allows program operators to track their educational and career outcomes 10 years after graduation.
Though many students benefit from BUSP’s offerings, there’s always a need for more funding.
“I do have more students than I have funding for,” said Champagne. “It would be fantastic if anyone were interested in supporting a BUSP or BUSP Honors student.”
“It’s such a critical time in their development,” she added. “It’s also a time when I just see them blossom.”