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Final Reflections

My honor’s Capstone experience was a little different from other honors students.  This was because I graduated a semester early, and therefore had to complete my Capstone project during the Fall semester only.  Thankfully, I already had a head start on my project because of the work I had completed during the previous summer as an Honors Scholar.  The first step of my Senior Capstone project this Fall was to conduct further analysis of the expression level of each amino acid transporter gene of interest.  This was accomplished by comparing the graphs of the expression levels for each gene I had constructed during my summer research.  I also normalized the data to show the fold-change of each gene’s expression in cancerous versus normal tissue.  This allowed a more intuitive understanding of the relative expression of amino acid transport proteins between mouse and human liver tissue, both normal and cancerous.

Our work this past summer also allowed us to determine the exact amino acid transporters to study for comparison between mouse and human genomes.  By utilizing bioinformatic “in silico” analysis rather than actual cells, we were able to better generate testable hypotheses and insure that we were not expending time and resources studying solute carriers that are not expressed in liver cancer.

Our work during the fall suggested there were significant differences between mouse and human solute carrier gene expression.  On average, the amino acid transporter ASCT2 was suppressed in both human and mouse liver cancer; however, LAT1 was enhanced in humans and suppressed in mice.  Among the mouse datasets we studied, there was also significant variation between certain treatments.  For instance, ASCT2 was suppressed in all of the samples except for the DENA treatment.  Diethylnitrosamine treatment, or DENA, is a chemically induced cirrhosis of the liver and we therefore hypothesized the disparity could be due to the significant scar tissue found in cirrhosis of the liver.  We concluded this because scarring in the liver would mean there was an abundance of stromal cells (which are the surrounding support cells) instead of hepatocytes (which are the liver cells) compared to the other samples.  We saw similar results in the mouse DENA treatment for LAT1.  The DENA treatment was the only sample with a significant elevation in the expression of the gene for LAT1 in mice.

Further research was necessary however to determine if the results from our bioinformatics data analysis was confirmed in actual cells.  Therefore, the second step in my project was to shadow one of the PhD candidates in Dr. Bode’s lab in order to learn the proper protocols to grow, maintain and harvest a stock of cancerous liver cells.  I also learned how to perform several laboratory analysis procedures such as: isolating RNA, making cDNA and performing RT-qPCR analysis in order to determine the quantitative level of RNA expression in liver cells.

I utilized the skills I had learned in order to help grow a stock of cancerous mouse liver cells for use in future screenings.  I then harvested the cells and performed the necessary RNA level analysis.  I met with my mentor to determine if the data was sufficient or if any of the experiments needed to be repeated.  Unfortunately, we ran into some issues while attempting to get the RT-qPCR analysis to work, and the experiments hJoel Dennison 15-Honors-4-19-GT-029ad to be repeated.

The final step in my Capstone project was to compare the data from the bioinformatics analysis to the levels of RNA and protein expression measured in the lab.  This analysis was designed to allow us to either validate or adjust our preliminary conclusions based on the “in silico” bioinformatics analysis this past summer.  At this point in our project, there are still a few other tasks that need to be completed before we can finalize our conclusions.  My project has served as a starting point for several other lab members who have taken on the project for continued study.  We are planning on publishing our data in a scientific journal once the project is fully completed.

I am very grateful for the opportunities that being an Honors Scholar provided me with this past year.  One of the aspects of being an Honors Scholar I enjoyed the most was the opportunity for individualized, hands-on training in the lab.  My mentors were amazing and really provided me with a unique insight into scientific research and collaboration that is not available in a classroom setting.  They were also very understanding of my ever-changing travel schedule due to my medical school interviews throughout this past semester.  Over the course of the Fall semester, I traveled to 11 medical schools in several mid-western states for interviews.  I have been placed on several wait-lists/accepted alternate lists and have received full acceptances to three medical schools thus far.

I was fortunate to also receive a generous merit scholarship to the University of Illinois – College of Medicine.  I am currently planning on attending medical school at U of I, unless I get accepted at Cleveland Clinic from the accepted alternate list which I am currently on.  At this point, it is my goal to specialize in surgical oncology.  It is my sincere hope that I will continue learning about novel treatments and interventions for patients suffering from cancer through hands-on bench-work in a lab during medical school.

I am confident that the initial foundation of knowledge and experiences I have gained at NIU will prepare me well for my continued cancer research throughout medical school.  I believe my experiences in the lab will also prepare me well for my future career as a physician, especially if I specialize in removing tumors through a career in surgical oncology.  Although the path of my future education is still somewhat uncertain, this I do know: my experience as an Honors Scholar was one of the best experiences I had while at NIU.  My work in the lab has had a profound impact on my personal development as well as my future career planning, and for that I am very grateful!

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Reflecting on my summer research

It is hard to believe that my University Honors Summer Scholar experience has come to an end and has transitioned into the year-long appointment of being a University Honors Scholar. My research and artistry experience this summer was very eye-opening, as well as exciting. While I had the opportunity to create elements of a television program before as semester project, I had not had the chance to actually do the preparation work of looking at other shows created by university students and critiquing them in such an academic way. I have also never been the lone producer on a student program and am excited to be able to take on that role. I ran into some difficulty achieving one of my research goals, as I had hoped to find some concrete information about college-age viewership of talk or special interest shows. I found a lot of data and opinion based articles on viewership of dramas and comedies, but not exactly what I was looking for. In terms of putting the show together I have most of the pre-production work completed. I am getting ready to actually start filming in the fall semester. I have been in contact with one of the local television stations and am pursuing the opportunity for this show to have air time once it is completed and has a regular production schedule. As I have mentioned before, my hopes for this show are to not only create an opportunity for the Communications looking for television production experience, but to focus on the NIU and DeKalb communities. This summer research experience allowed me to get a head start on my capstone, which will hopefully make for an excellent television program.

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Summer Reflections

Participating in the University Honors Scholars Program has been a highly rewarding experience. Looking back on the summer, I can see the many ways that I have grown as a person. I have had many great experiences, and there are many people to thank for helping make my summer research a success. I am very grateful to the University Honors Program for making it possible to devote my time this summer to research. Additional gratitude goes to my faculty mentor, Dr. Nicholas Pohlman, who has been especially helpful.  He has challenged me to develop my critical thinking skills and look at problems from multiple perspectives. Without his direction, I would not have been able to make the progress that I have. This program has benefited my academic experience in many different ways, and I am excited to see what more I can learn as I finish my capstone this upcoming year.

This summer I was able to complete all of the tasks that I had hoped to. Among these things were document review, internal and external rail system design, development of an insertion procedure, and the preliminary design and analysis of external support stands. Since I was able to achieve all of this, I feel that I ended my summer research at the perfect place. I will spend my fall semester making multiple external stand design improvements. In the spring, I will focus my effort on technical writing as I document the details of my designs and simulations.

Performing this research has given me a great start on not only my capstone, but also my mechanical engineering senior design project. Since my senior design and capstone are incorporated, I now have a strong foundation on which to build on. I look forward to completing a distinguished capstone that helps to advance the understanding of physics and the particles that make up the world around us.

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Reflections of the past preserved by photography

Being an Honors Scholar has been an invaluable research experience. Being a part of this program allowed me to explore the topic I am passionate about in ways I might have not otherwCincotta NYC photo 2ise been able to do.

I began this project by participating in the Seminar on Archival and Historical Research at the Center for Jewish History in New York City, May 19-22. As one undergraduate alongside about ten graduate students, I attended lectures, group discussions, and workshops led by historians from across the nation, Center staff, and advanced Ph.D. students of history and Jewish Studies. I received in depth instruction from archivists and librarians on how to navigate the archives, use the reading room, and general archive processes.

Furthermore, during my time at the Center for Jewish History, I collected source materials integral to a study of German WWII photography. I examined original photo albums by members of the German military, a scrapbook created by the fiancé of an American soldier stationed in South-East Asia during WWII, a series of photographs taken by an Austrian Jew who fought for the British army also during WWII, and vacation albums compiled by ordinary Austrian citizens in the 1930s.

Cincotta NYC photoIn the remaining weeks following the seminar, I continued to collect primary materials and began to situate them in the secondary literature, alongside materials I previously consulted in Washington DC and Berlin, Germany. This program gave me the freedom to expand my literary review for this project beyond my capability to do so during a regular semester. Situating German WWII photographs in terms of their continuities and discontinuities meant that I had to expand the parameters of time, place, and cultural norms; by extension, my secondary literature review needed to be quite extensive. In the nine-week period, I not only read scholarly works on German photography during the Second World War. I expanded my review to include scholarly work on colonial photography (particularly French colonial photography starting in the late nineteenth century), German advertising and commercial culture in the 1920s and 1930s, the Spanish Civil War, and World War One. The Program enabled me to conduct a literary review I would not have been able to do as extensively during the semester, which allowed me to develop my thinking about the framework of the project and ultimately my argument. As a result, I have been able to craft the basic sections of my thesis, and am looking forward to the next steps as I begin to write.

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Reflecting on a great summer experience

Looking back, my summer research project was a great experience and has taught me many valuable skills as well as problem solving and the value of collaboration. I was able to put the skills I learned from my bioinformatics internship last summer into practice to compare amino acid transporter expression levels in human and mouse liver cancer. Working together, Dr. Bode, Dr. Yin and I were able to find, sort, analyze and interpret large datasets of the expression levels of solute carriers in both mouse and human liver cancer.Joel working in Bode lab pic for Honors blog-2_1

One of the surprises for me was the sheer volume of data that we had to cull through in order to extract the relevant solute carrier data. Each dataset that we downloaded contained the expression information for about 10,000 genes across a sample size of about 200 patients. Each sample was also replicated which meant even more data to sort. This meant that we had to extract only the information regarding the expression levels of the amino acid transporters and combine the replicate data. Thankfully, the amino acid transporters we were interested in studying were only coded for by around 64 genes, a much more manageable amount of data!

Although we are in the preliminary stages of our research, our findings suggest that there are significant quantitative differences between mouse and human solute carrier gene expression, but two of the solute carriers we were particularly interested in, ASCT2 and LAT1, appear to be enhanced in both human and mouse HCC. Moving forward with the project, one of the questions we will be seeking to solve is whether we can confirm our bioinformatics’ findings with living cells. Another question is – if so, what are the implications on mouse models because of the differences between mouse and human solute carrier expression?

Deeper analysis is needed to determine the most cogent mouse models for liver cancer research and to determine if the results from our bioinformatics’ data is confirmed in actual cells. We will move forward this fall by continuing to analyze our bioinformatics results to determine the quantitative differences for each solute carrier gene between mice and humans, and generate testable hypotheses which we will seek to confirm with more traditional methods such as RT-qPCR and Western blots to screen for RNA and protein expression levels respectively.

Thanks to the head start that my research this summer has given me, I will be able to accomplish the in-depth analysis that is necessary to find the most cogent mouse model for studying liver cancer therapies during my Senior capstone project. It is my hope that by finding the most analogous mouse model for human liver cancer, we will be able to better understand the functioning of potential drugs to treat liver cancer. It is also our goal to submit our novel findings to a scientific journal for publication later this year. It is my sincere hope that other researchers will benefit from our findings and use our discoveries as a foundation to build upon for many other scientific discoveries.

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My connection to the research

My love of history has its roots in a particular book that I read as a child: The Diary of Anne Frank. Around my ninth birthday, I received the book as a gift. I don’t recall my exact reactions to specific details in the book, nor do I remember having any prior knowledge of the Holocaust at that age. But what I do know is this: Reading that diary sparked not only a love of history, but a desire to hear the voices of the victims and the individuals who Anne Frankexperienced the Holocaust. This is what drives me to study modern Germany history to this day.

I have always been drawn to film and photography; The first photographs from this period that struck me were a series of images from the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, which I encountered as a high school freshman in a book about the camp. I was shocked by what they showed, and confronted by the historical truth they seemed to possess. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college as a Research Rookie that I began critically thinking about what these images mean, and how they have been used in history. Through a project that comparatively analyzed WWII official and unofficial photographs by German soldiers, I discovered that many scholars assume that these photographs somehow “embody” Nazi ideology and are therefore tainted by it. Questioning this assumption is what led to this current project.

As I wrote about in a previous blog post, this project aims to situate German WWII images in terms of their continuities (and discontinuities) with pre-1933 German and broader European photographic trends. Why study photographs in such detail? In one way, scholars have considered the 1933-1945 period an exceptionally unique moment in German history, and in many ways it was. However, this period did not just spring out of nowhere – it developed, grew, and evolved from already established cultural norms and attitudes. Tracing the continuities and discontinuities of German and international visual culture through German WWII photographs will help us better understand what persevered after 1933, and what dramatically changed.

We also live in an era dominated by visuals. We are bombarded visuals and rely on them to consume information or understand a concept, from photographs, to film, to infographics; often this leaves us to take images for face value. By understanding the nuances of photography from such a destructive period, I hope that we can similarly understand and critically contemplate the images we see coming from conflict today.

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My Faculty Mentor

I am greatly honored this summer for having the privilege to have researched with Dr. Nick Pohlman. Having been selected for both the of the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology Faculty of the Year Award aspohlman-nick well as the University Honors Great Professor Award, Dr. Pohlman proves that any student would be lucky to have him as a research mentor. His passion for research is paralleled by his dedication to teaching and mentoring aspiring engineers.

I have had the opportunity to have Dr. Pohlman not only as a mentor but also as a teacher. As a teacher Dr. Pohlman is exceptionally talented in his ability to clearly explain complicated theories and concepts. During one class, he derived a fundamental engineering equation; completing these steps took nearly an hour. While I would have had great difficulty following this derivation in the book, my classmates and I were able to follow every step as Dr. Pohlman patiently explained the process.  Throughout this summer, I have been able to apply problem solving strategies and computational programs learned in his class to analyze and interpret experimentally based findings. Taking a class with Dr. Pohlman before beginning my summer research has proved to be especially rewarding.

As a mentor Dr. Pohlman has provided me with all the guidance necessary to complete many different tasks this summer. Being well versed in his understanding of engineering concepts, he has always been able to provide analytical insight and advice to topics he doesn’t regularly teach but that have been come up during my research.  One of the things I appreciate most about my mentor is the many different aspects of engineering to which he has introduced me. Whether it was providing constructive criticism to technical writing or suggesting I analyze a problem from a different perspective, my interaction with Dr. Pohlman has helped enhance my understanding of the engineering profession.   Dr. Pohlman is a highly motivated professor who simultaneously manages many students and research projects. Even with such a busy schedule, he has put in a great deal of time to help me make significant progress on my honors capstone. His personable and encouraging disposition has made my summer research an extraordinary and enjoyable experience.

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