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Undergraduates step outside their bubbles and into Brazilian laboratory

Feb. 3, 2010

A pair of Ohio University seniors, Courtney Abram and Jocelyn Marshall, headed off to Rio de Janeiro for a winter break to remember.

Abram and Marshall, both chemical and biomolecular engineering majors in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology, worked in the laboratory of  Leonardo Nimrichter of Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He collaborates with the pair's Ohio University adviser, Monica Burdick, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and a member of the biomedical engineering faculty.

For Abram and Marshall, learning in Brazil was not limited to the scientific.

Courtney Abram, Dr. Leonardo Nimrichter, Patricia Tavares (of Dr. Nimrichter's lab), and Jocelyn Marshall"In college, you're in your own little bubble," Marshall said. "As much as you try not to be, you are. So I think being able to experience other cultures and other countries, and live there and work there, adds to the education that we're receiving."

"Definitely it was nice to work with people from a different culture on the same project," Abram said. "I thought it was kind of cool to see them using the same skills that we use here."

Neither of the students, who are from northeast Ohio, speaks Portuguese, but their co-workers in Rio spoke enough English to help them get by -- and they all spoke the "language" of cell adhesion, the cancer research interest of Burdick and Nimrichter.

The two professors attended graduate school together at The Johns Hopkins University, where they researched how lipids are important in neutrophils and the inflammation process. "But now we're trying to explore how the lipids are important in cancer metastasis," Burdick said.

While in Brazil, Abram and Marshall were introduced to a new skill -- using optical tweezers to assist in the study of lipids. Another Ohio University biomedical engineering faculty member, David Tees, uses optical tweezers in his lab, but for the study of proteins. "Now we know how to apply that technology specifically to the study of lipids," Burdick said. "It's kind of important for what we do." 

Through the partnership that exists between the Burdick and Tees labs, Burdick said, "We can identify adhesion parameters that are specific to lipids and whether these particular parameters can explain why lipids bind differently than proteins to the receptors they have in common."

Before their visit to Brazil, the students had communicated with Nimrichter via Skype and e-mail about specific issues they encountered with assays. They found that such give and take is smoother in person. "It was a lot easier to fix the problems that I would be going to him for while he's there in the lab with me rather than over the Internet, trying to explain to him what I'm doing – but really not," Marshall said.

Bruno Pontes (of Dr. Nimrichter's lab) and Courtney Abram, at work in Rio de Janeiro.While in Rio, Abram and Marshall noticed differences in the lab culture, as well as the culture in general. At Ohio University, there are four or five people in the lab at a time. In Rio, it was 12 to 15, as three investigators share the lab.

Marshall also noted that she felt less urgency than when working in the U.S. "It makes for a more relaxed atmosphere, which is nice, but at the same time, things take a little bit longer to get done," she said. "And there are pros and cons to both styles. Just the way they do funding makes it more relaxed, as well. Dr. Nimrichter doesn't feel as pressured as I'm sure Dr. Burdick does to apply for grants and get money and funding and tenure and such."

Living and working in a large city, on the beach, on a different continent, with most people speaking an unfamiliar language, put Abram and Marshall well outside their collegiate bubble. For them, outside the bubble was a welcome location, though it had harsh realities of its own.

Marshall expressed surprise at the scenes of poverty they encountered on their rides to and from the lab. "It was an eye-opening experience," she said. "I wasn't expecting that. We would drive through it, and it's just amazing."

On the plus side, there was also the matter of unseasonably rainy (but not snowy) December weather. "There were some really hot days in the 90s," Abram said. "Then it was in the 70s a couple of days and people were bundled, but we were like, 'Yeah!'"

"Personally, it was a great pleasure to host two students from Monica Burdick, a great friend and an outstanding scientist," Nimrichter said. "I hope we can keep collaborating in this and other projects."

That, too, is Burdick's hope.

Abram and Marshall are the first of Burdick's students to travel abroad to conduct research. Burdick would like some of Nimrichter's students to spend time in her lab, too.

"Research, as with all fields, is becoming more global," she said, "so unless you know how to work with people who work outside the United States, you're kind of cutting yourself out of a lot of growth, potentially."

An Ohio University Student Enhancement Award furnished the funding needed for Abram and Marshall's trip and supplies, as well as for their trip to the American Association for Cancer Research annual conference in April in Washington, D.C., where they presented their work.



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