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As a major research institution, The University of Georgia encourages undergraduates to participate in research with faculty in all academic disciplines. From their first moments on campus, Foundation Fellows are introduced to top-tier faculty members who can direct them to people and projects that complement their interests. With funding from the Fellowship, many Fellows also pursue research opportunities off campus at institutions in the United States and abroad. These experiences bring classroom subjects to life, confer practical skills, and guide students toward the next steps in their academic and professional careers.

Foundation Fellow Todd Pierson conducting research in a North GA stream

Marianne Ligon – Biochemistry & Molecular Biology

Undergraduate research was what drew me to UGA, and I haven’t been disappointed. Since my first semester, I’ve worked in Drs. Michael and Rebecca Terns’ lab in the biochemistry department studying the CRISPR/Cas system, a newly discovered RNA-based immune system in bacteria and archaea that is now being used for genome editing in nearly every model organism available.

Drs. Michael and Rebecca Terns taught me a plethora of biochemical and genetic techniques that I’ve been able to apply to other fields and, most importantly, how to meticulously design and run experiments. Although it’s been difficult at times, like most great challenges, the learning experience has been immensely rewarding. I started my project without a clear direction, intending mostly to learn, but after several semesters in the lab, I began to take charge and move my project forward investigating the biochemical mechanisms of a particular subtype of the CRISPR/Cas system. With the Ternses’ guidance and much help from my lab mates, I prepared an Honors thesis and hope to submit my work to a scientific journal in the near future.

student in lab processing data

The Foundation Fellowship also gave me the opportunity to explore research beyond UGA. I participated in a research program at NYU one summer working with Dan Littman, one of the world’s leading immunologists. Originally I was interested in his work on HIV, but he introduced me to the field of mucosal immunology and the role that commensal bacteria play in shaping the gastrointestinal and systemic immune system. Dr. Littman was instrumental in helping me develop independent research skills, particularly with regard to literature review, which sparked new interests and scientific creativity. Handling a huge amount of literature that discussed techniques I had never done challenged me to learn and grow. This skill helped me improve my research project back at UGA and has also been an essential skill in my favorite class (graduate-level Advanced Immunology with Dr. Klonowski), where we explore current literature in a variety of immunological fields and prepare a research proposal within each topic.

I followed up my summer in the Littman lab by arranging a visiting student position under Kevin Maloy at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford University, starting another short-term project that examined the role of ER stress in colon inflammation. These varied experiences have inspired me to pursue an MD/PhD in the field of immunology and inflammation with the goal of practicing as a physician scientist.

Foundation Fellow David Millard working on a robotics research project

Matt Tyler – Education, Political Science

Over the past four years, I’ve participated in several research projects abroad – all supported by the Fellowship and the Honors Program. I’m a fourth-year Fellow completing a combined bachelor’s/master’s in political science. I came to UGA expecting to go to law school and signed up for a one-hour CURO seminar on law research my first semester. The professor who taught the class did research in education law, and after asking to work with him the next semester, I became interested in education research.

The subsequent semester, I participated in an Honors book discussion with Dr. Ron Butchart on education policy. By this time I was already planning to do the SPIA at Oxford program in spring 2012. The program ended in mid-March, so I planned to volunteer at a school in Ghana for the rest of the semester. After talking with Dr. Butchart, however, I realized I could turn my travel into a research opportunity. I applied for and received a grant from the Honors International Scholars Program to visit schools in Ghana, France, Italy, and England after the Oxford program. In each location, I participated in homestays; interviewed teachers, students and government officials; and conducted classroom observations and statistical analyses. On this trip I became interested in the politics of education (how a country’s history and social context affect how teachers teach), which became the focus of my master’s thesis two years later! And I received class credit for it, which helped to make the timing more feasible.

Foundation Fellow Matt Tyler working in a classroom

Fast forward to spring 2013. I was in a similar situation as before – I was planning to participate in the UGA China Maymester through the political science department. The China program was only going to last three weeks, but I wanted to stay in the region longer. When I mentioned this to the professor leading the trip, he said that I could receive funding through the Freeman-ASIA program, a scholarship administered through several departments at UGA for the purpose of internships and research in Asia. With this in mind, I targeted universities in Hong Kong (since it’s largely a bilingual region) with professors conducting research in education. After emailing five or six professors, one responded and said that I was welcome to come. I received money from the Freeman Foundation and spent a month conducting research on teacher self-efficacy in relation to group learning in a comparative study with Cambridge University.

Five months later I reached out to the professor at Cambridge with whom we were working to talk about their master’s program (which I applied to). She mentioned that the professor in Hong Kong spoke highly of me and said off-the-cuff that they would love for me to help with their data analysis. To the professor’s surprise, I told her that I had grant money from the Foundation Fellowship and could make a trip to England for a few weeks to help them. I went at the beginning of January 2014 for ten days. Both the Hong Kong and the Cambridge trips resulted in conference proposals, and our research in Hong Kong got nominated for a ‘best paper’ award at the International Conference for Education Research in Seoul!

astronomy and physics students conducting research

Phil Grayeski Genetics

Coming into The University of Georgia, I knew I liked the idea of tinkering with the DNA of living organisms. In Dr. Jan Westpheling’s lab, I created genetic knockouts of key proteins that enable Caldicellusiruptor bescii, an anaerobic thermophile, to digest unpretreated biomass with the goal of creating new organisms for biofuel development. At the time, I naively thought this level of genetic engineering was limited to simple organisms, such as bacteria or flies. In Dr. Westpheling’s Honors genetics seminar, however, I learned that this level of genetic engineering is achievable in higher-order organisms and is currently being explored as therapeutics for diseases that were previously thought incurable, such as cystic fibrosis and Adrenoleukodystrophy.

With Dr. Westpheling’s and the Foundation Fellowship’s support, I traveled to Munich, Germany to conduct research for Dr. Manfred Ogris and develop my newfound interest in eukaryotic genetic engineering. I worked on creating hybrid promoters that maintained high expression of their target gene yet had tissue specificity to selectively transcribe a therapeutic gene in target tissues, in this case melanocytes, to treat metastatic melanoma in a plasmid-based gene therapy approach. When I returned to UGA, I knew I wanted to continue my training in eukaryotic genetic systems. Hence, I transitioned to Dr. Jonathan Eggenschwiler’s lab, a phenomenal new professor at UGA, to work on dissecting the relationship between the cell cycle and sonic hedge signaling in mammalian cells. Between Dr. Westpheling’s and Dr. Eggenschwiler’s training at UGA, I developed the requisite skills to craft and execute my own experiments, which will help me succeed as a future scientist.

Foundation Fellow Kishore Vedala working in a lab at the CCRC

To gain further experience in developing advanced therapeutics, I worked in Dr. Michael Goldberg’s lab at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard Medical School in Boston. There I created albumin nanoparticles that were small enough to navigate through the extracellular matrix walls surrounding tumors to deliver a payload that would promote these walls’ degradation and provide access for immune cells to infiltrate and respond to the tumor. In the coming years, I plan to continue the development of advanced therapeutics as I will be enrolling in the Master’s in Bioscience Enterprise program at the University of Cambridge and then joining the MD/PhD program at the University of North Carolina. I hope to combine this business education with my physician scientist training to translate a potential research idea into a viable therapeutic for my patients.

fellows presenting at curo symposium






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