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Summer Co-op Scholars Get Real-World Experience

Students Conduct Research with Faculty, Industry, Community

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Computer science sophomore and summer co-op scholar Stephen Demeule, left, with Vice Provost for Research Julie Chen.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Imagine developing a computer program that can construct a DNA map from DNA fragments. Or using horses for rehabilitation and therapy. Or coming up with an innovative way of diagnosing Lyme disease.

These are just a few examples of the exciting research projects that UMass Lowell’s high-merit students are undertaking as part of the University’s Co-Op Scholars Program.

“At UMass Lowell, we engage students early in their college careers, urging them to participate in meaningful, practical experiences that enrich learning and prepare them for work, life and the world,” says Prof. Julie Chen, vice provost for research. “Research cooperative education offers undergraduate and graduate students the chance to work side-by-side with outstanding faculty from across the campus and with industry and community partners in all areas of research.”

Sixty-four sophomores from all six colleges on campus presented their work in 44 posters during this year’s Summer Co-op Scholars Poster Session.

“This is an exciting initiative that provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to be able to test the waters within one’s major in a safe environment,” says Adrianna Morris, program director of campus research co-ops. “Students can see how the knowledge they gain in the classroom can be applied to impact their world, and this is a unique and appealing part of their educational experience at UMass Lowell.”

See photos of this year’s poster session in the UMass Lowell Photo Gallery. Here are snapshots of a handful of the research projects:

Mapping DNA, One Strand at a Time

Whole genome sequencing — a laboratory process that determines the complete DNA sequence of an organism’s genetic material at a single time — costs time and money.

“Human genome sequencing today can take up to three days and cost between $3,000 and $5,000,” says Stephen Demeule, a computer science sophomore. “For many forensic investigators and field researchers, this is too much time and money for a single DNA sample.”

Demeule has developed a program that can analyze DNA sub-strands and combine them to create longer strands.

“The program reads each combination and uses algorithms to remove improbable DNA sequences,” he explains. “The end product is the most possible combination of the DNA sequence.”

Using the technique, Demeule was able to reconstruct yeast DNA “with little or no error.” But he acknowledges his code still has a long way to go.

“Yeast contains 230,000-plus individual nucleic acid bases while the human genome contains around 2.3 billion,” he notes.

Demeule’s co-op adviser is computer science Assoc. Prof. Byung Guk Kim.

The Power of Equine Therapy

Haily O’Malley, an exercise physiology major in the College of Health Sciences, is passionate about anything related to animals, particularly horses.

“I’ve always been interested in rehabilitative forms of therapy using animals and horses,” she says.

O’Malley is collaborating with Windrush Farm in North Andover in providing young people with various physical, emotional, behavioral and cognitive challenges the option of hippotherapy and therapeutic horseback riding.

“Hippotherapy uses the horse as a ‘tool,’ ” she explains. “Many clients benefit from the horse’s rhythmic walking and trotting motions as they improve their sense of balance as well as trunk stability and strength.”

She says therapeutic horseback riding can enhance not only the physical, mental and emotional health of the riders through their ability to work with and control the horse, but also forge strong bonds between them and the horse’s volunteer handlers and walkers.

“Therapeutic programs involving horses are currently underrated and therefore lacking in resources,” notes O’Malley. “There is a dearth of facilities, instructors, therapists and clientele due to the lack of knowledge and awareness on this viable therapy option.”

O’Malley’s co-op mentor is Gina Armano of Windrush Farm.     

Diagnosing a Serious Tick-Borne Disease

Lyme disease, an illness caused by the spiral-shaped bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected black-legged deer ticks. Diagnostic methods generally used today involve testing the patient for antibodies to the disease.

“Antibodies are the body’s immune response to the disease,” says Anna Brajak, a sophomore in the Clinical Laboratory and Nutritional Sciences Department. “However, testing can be unreliable and can vary from lab to lab. For example, the enzyme immunoassay test, which is generally done first, is not sensitive and might miss up to half of the cases reported.”

A better method, she says, is the culture test, in which a sample of the organism is taken from a patient and grown in a media so it can be identified. However, the bacteria grow so slowly that the test becomes impractical.

Brajak, together with fellow summer co-op scholar Chengqi Gao in biological sciences, has developed the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method to test for the bacteria rather than the antibodies.

“When only a small amount of DNA sample is available, the PCR is effective in quickly increasing the quantity of the sample for analysis,” she explains.

Brajak says the number of positive results that the team obtained using the PCR was equivalent to those obtained using the culture test.

“The PCR technique allowed detection in samples with fewer than 10 spirochetes [bacteria],” she notes. “Sensitivity to the PCR was 62 percent compared to the culture method, which was 57 percent.”

The team’s co-op faculty mentor is Asst. Prof. Gui-Xin He of the Clinical Laboratory and Nutritional Sciences Department.