The VALUE of MENTORSHIP
Misericordia University students work alongside professors while searching
for new knowledge in their undergraduate research projects.
Tucked immediately outside his office, Frank DiPino, Jr., PhD, professor of biology, has what he refers to as a “teaching laboratory.’’ It enables the students he mentors to gain an understanding of research methodologies and protocols while also exploring for the unknown as they conduct undergraduate research projects under his watchful eye. It features a collection of equipment, chemical compounds, supplies, and other related materials.
“Students that join our research efforts learn current cutting-edge molecular cell biology and genetics methodologies, how to collect data, analyze experimental results, and draw conclusions and communicate their findings,’’ says Dr. DiPino, explaining how mentorship opportunities benefit students at Misericordia University. “Without question, these are valuable experiences that prepare students to go on to jobs, medical school, and PhD programs. They also experience the unique thrill of creating new knowledge and discovering something that has never been known before.’’
In a way, the camaraderie in the laboratory mirrors Misericordia’s overall intimate academic environment. Students routinely store personal belongings there in convenient drawers as they balance valuable research time with their busy class and study schedules. On any given day or night, a singular student or team can be found working on projects, pipetting samples, and operating various centrifuges, high-powered microscopes, vacufuges, thermal cyclers, and more.
Rachel Bohn, a Biology and Pre-med major who graduated in May, worked on the “Mutagenesis Approach to Disrupt PAK2: A Protein Involved in Breast Cancer’’ project since its inception in 2013 on campus and at The Commonwealth Medical College (TCMC) in Scranton, Pennsylvania. One of two valedictorians for the Class of 2016, she collaborated in the exciting cancer research project with fellow undergraduate research scientists, as well as faculty mentors Dr. DiPino and Jun Ling, PhD, assistant professor of molecular biology at TCMC. (To watch a video about the value of mentorship at Misericordia University, type the shortcut, bit.ly/mumentorship, into your Web browser.)
Dr. DiPino and Bohn each have their own unique way of describing the complex scientific research that has been a large part of their lives since they began examining the PAK2 gene and its interconnectedness to breast and colon cancers. Dr. DiPino, a molecular cell biologist, compares their work to “turning a light switch off and on,’’ as they are focused on understanding how a “molecular switch’’ activates these deadly cancers. Bohn takes it a step further and uses the analogy of opening the hood of a car, cutting a wire, and later learning the brakes no longer work on the vehicle.
More precisely, though, Misericordia and TCMC researchers are engaged deeply in research that seeks to fully understand the autophosphorylation sites that regulate PAK2 and may cause it to lose proper regulation if it mutates, causing tumors and metastasis.
At Misericordia University and TCMC, Bohn and other students have cloned the human PAK2 gene—which plays a role in cell behavior such as cell division, migration, and survival-—and confirmed the gene by DNA sequencing. They now are utilizing bioinformatics technology and computer software to plan and outline the alteration of the gene, specifically in regard to designing primers. By mutating specific areas of the gene, researchers are working to understand which “molecular switch’’ in the protein encoded by the gene causes the cell to short circuit and eventually become cancerous.
“These sites might also be good drug targets for cancer therapies,’’ Bohn said, “and this can be foundational research for drugs of the future.’’
Researchers acknowledge their work is arduous and one piece of a much larger puzzle, as so many unknowns remain in understanding cancer. But as they take these baby steps together, the engaged mentorship these students receive proves invaluable as it prepares them to tackle graduate school and more complex research opportunities.
“Science is slow and there are a lot more steps involved than people realize. When you say you are doing a procedure, like a site-directed mutagenesis, it’s a long, multi-step process,’’ said Bohn, who was awarded a full academic scholarship by TCMC to continue working toward her medical degree. “It’s science, so things do go wrong and you have to go back and repeat.
“It’s important to keep that goal in mind—that this is what we are working toward. When you have so many steps, it is easy to get lost in them, especially when you might have to repeat a procedure more than once. This research is going to go on long after I am gone, and many people already have graduated from the project,’’ she added.
Art of discovery
History is filled with important people whose brilliance, curiosity, and devotion to explaining the unexplainable led to discoveries that changed humankind forever. Rudolf Virchow found that diseases are caused by malfunctioning cells, Ronald Fisher was one of the principle founders of population genetics, and Alexander Fleming is known for discovering penicillin.
At Misericordia University Dr. DiPino is recognized for sharing his time and talent, as he believes the most important aspect of his job is the role he plays as mentor—inside and outside of the classroom. Whether students are conducting course work research on environmental field plants, cell biology, molecular biology, or genetics, the veteran educator knows how influential and beneficial the student-professor relationship can be for the next generation of scientists, educators, and doctors.
“The most rewarding part of my career is working with research students,’’ he said. “Some are drawn to research because they want to explore and discover new knowledge. Some are naturally curious. Some are stubborn people who use that tenacity to commit the time after classes, after studying, and after working a job to go to the research lab and put more hours of work in on the project. And some are positive, optimistic people who are not discouraged by failed experiments. They adjust and improve the experiment, and repeat it and repeat it.’’
Undergraduate students, though, learn more than scientific procedures, protocols, and new knowledge when conducting research with a faculty mentor—they unlock their potential.
“It’s taught me to realize how things are interconnected,’’ Bohn says. “Our results are not necessarily ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ We have to interpret and analyze our results to see if they are consistent with what we expected and move onto the next step. When you are a physician, for example, you are the decision-maker. You are deciding upon a plan of care for that patient. It’ll be helpful to have the ability to think independently and consider all options.’’
In the fall Bohn realized her dream of attending medical school when she participated in the annual White Coat Ceremony and became a member of the TCMC Class of 2020. In her acceptance letter, the medical school in Lackawanna County acknowledged the role her undergraduate research played in her being one of the members of the incoming class.
“Many factors are considered in the admission process,’’ said the letter signed by Steven J. Scheinman, MD, President and Dean of TCMC. “The admissions committee was particularly impressed with your outstanding academic performance at Misericordia University [and] your PAK2 research...’’
Bohn graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree and a 4.0 grade point average. She was one of two spring 2016 class valedictorians and addressed her fellow classmates and guests at commencement. Her fellow valedictorian, Gina Baiamonte, a Biochemistry major from Ashley, Pennsylvania, also began medical school in the fall at TCMC.
To find out more about our campus, academic programs, and student-focused education, please visit our website at admissions.misericordia.edu.
Founded: 1924 by the Religious Sisters of Mercy
Affiliation: Roman Catholic Church
Campus: 123-acre residential main campus in a suburban setting in Dallas, Pennsylvania, with additional facilities located on a nearby lower campus
Total enrollment: 2,879; full-time enrollment: 1,898; part-time and graduate enrollment: 981
Financial aid: Approximately 99% of students receive some form of financial aid.