Visiting students learn from MU educators
Many university undergraduate students don’t have the opportunity to participate in specialized research opportunities. Thanks to a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF REU) grant coordinated by Satish Nair, a University of Missouri professor of electrical engineering, 12 students from across the country were able to participate in a nine-week summer research opportunity in computational neuroscience — the use of computers to study brain functions and neural circuitry — on the MU campus.
Justin Moore, a Yale University sophomore, applied to multiple summer research opportunities, but it was the chance to work with Nair that drove him to apply for acceptance to the MU program.
“I was looking for an enriching summer experience,” Moore, a double major in neurobiology and statistics, said. “I knew this was something I likely wouldn’t have gotten to do elsewhere.”
Doctoral student Pranit Samarth, who has assisted Nair in overseeing the REU, said the program was unique in that it was cross-disciplinary between biological sciences, such as biology and psychology, and physical sciences, engineering, physics and math. This program also emphasizes recruitment of students from underrepresented groups and from non-doctorate granting institutions.
Engineering, biological sciences, neurology, pathology and physiology faculty welcomed students into their labs from May 28 to to July 26. Participants lived in campus housing and received a $4,500 stipend, a meal plan and had the opportunity to work with graduate students and faculty in the field of computational neuroscience They earned one credit hour for the experience and presented their research in a poster format at the Undergraduate Research Summer Forum, July 26.
Moore’s research examined how memories are encoded in the brain. Over the summer, he constructed computational models of three compartment single cells — pyramidal cell and interneuron — and perirhinal cortex area 36, an area of the brain that receives highly processed sensory information.
“I wanted to see the interactions of the network from the single cell level to multi-cell levels, how they interact and how a disruption will affect that network,” Moore said.
He said the program provided him with an invaluable lesson on the research process and what it was like to have his work published.
Participant Winthrop Harvey’s work in the Digital Biology Lab was unique in that it didn’t look at the human brain, but rather plant neurobiology.
“Plant neurobiology is not talking literally about neurons, but about systems that work analogous to neurons and the study of those pathways,” said Harvey, a senior math major at Amherst College.
Harvey’s research was also unique in that it did not conduct any new experiments, but rather took a close look at data from other experiments.
“We used other people’s experiments and analyzed that. There’s a shortage of people analyzing that data,” he said.
Harvey, who worked in the lab of Professor Dong Xu, computer science department chair, analyzed research that examined how soybeans responded to heat stressors. He said this could help understand how to better produce soybeans in hot or dry conditions.
Like Moore, Harvey said this program was one of many he applied to, but chose to study at MU because of the projects that were available and from positive comments he’d heard about the university.
“I heard a lot about MU, people telling me how great it was, and I have family nearby. This program was also the most directly related to my research,” Harvey said, adding that he had additionally received valued practice working with the software applications used in this field.
Xu said Harvey was an “outstanding student” and praised him not only for the work he completed over the summer, but also for other recognition he’s received, including silver and bronze medals in the USA Biology Olympiad.
MU Engineering hosted two NSF-REUs this summer. Besides Nair’s program, faculty in the Department of Computer Science/Information Technology, offered research experiences that focused on home and consumer networking technology, sponsored by Professor Wenjun “Kevin” Zeng. Biological sciences and the Office of Undergraduate Research collaborated on a third NSF-REU, through which participants worked with faculty in biology and biochemistry.
Director of Undergraduate Research Linda Blockus said the programs benefit the university because of the way they promote Mizzou to other students.
“These are potential grad students. The summer research programs give them an opportunity to check out what it would be like to go to school here,” Blockus said.
This is the second year for the neuroscience REU, and Samarth said the interest generated was significant, based on the number of applications received.
“Last year, we had 50 to 60 applications, but this year, we had more than 120,” he said.
MU currently offers graduate courses in computational neuroscience through ECE as well as the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program and has also initiated a new interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in the field that is open to students from both college of engineering and college of arts and science.