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DISIRE program opens doors for undergraduate researchers to study under diabetes experts

This past summer, the transformative program known as the Diabetes Institute Summer Interprofessional Research Experience (DISIRE) welcomed eight undergraduate students to the Ohio University campus in Athens. Their journey, made possible by a National Institutes of Health Research Education Program (R25) grant, was aimed at inspiring these young minds to pursue careers in diabetes research while fostering valuable connections in their respective fields.

This initiative was a collaborative endeavor, led by the dedicated researchers in Ohio University's Diabetes Institute who were passionate about nurturing the next generation of scientists. The diverse cohort included undergraduate students from Ohio University, Denison University, Case Western Reserve University, Marietta College, Hiram College, and Marshall University, all with different backgrounds and experiences but sharing the same goal: to deepen their understanding of diabetes.

Running from June to July, the DISIRE program offered a comprehensive experience that involved direct mentorship from OHIO's Diabetes Institute, the opportunity to develop and research their own projects, weekly check-ins, and a culminating research symposium.

One of the program's key features was letting students choose mentors and projects that resonated with their interests.

"This personalized approach helped foster a sense of ownership and enthusiasm for the research they undertook," Beverly, one of the program's organizers, said.

The students had the privilege of working with researchers such as Dr. Craig Nunemaker, whose focus is on islet cells, Dr. John Kopchick, who explores the connection between infectious diseases and diabetes, and Dr. Allyson Hughes who examines psychosocial factors related to managing diabetes, among many other experts.

Each student collaborated with their respective mentor on unique projects, ranging from analyzing diabetes-related content on social media for scientific accuracy to investigating the impact of various substances on adipose tissue.

Spruhaa Vasistha, a junior majoring in biology at Denison University, worked closely with Hughes on her project, which examined the accuracy of information related to type 1 diabetes on TikTok.

Spruhaa Vasistha presents on her project, which examined the accuracy of information related to type 1 diabetes on TikTok, during the research symposium.

“TikTok is one of the most popular platforms and has a huge impact on its mainly young millennial and Gen Z users,” Vasistha explained. “By analyzing 171 TikTok videos, we were able to assess the quality of the health information being shared about type 1 diabetes. In an era where misinformation can be easily spread, especially concerning health, accuracy is critical.”

According to Vasistha, there's a significant population of people with diabetes in Appalachia who are seeking support and accessible information, and TikTok might be one of the easiest platforms to gather such information. This makes assessing the accuracy of the information all the more important.

In addition to research, the students gathered each week for practical sessions, diving into various aspects of diabetes research and discussing potential career paths, including considerations for graduate and medical school.

“This was our first of five years offering this program, and what it taught me is the importance of mentorship,” Beverly said. "Many of these students are first-generation or come from underserved communities, lacking access or generational knowledge about advancing their careers, especially in research and the sciences.”

The DISIRE program aimed to bridge that gap by providing guidance and mentorship to students who might not have had those advantages otherwise. The program is open to all students enrolled in a college or university who have completed chemistry, biology, physics or other relevant coursework, but individuals from groups that are underrepresented in science, such as first-generation college students, and those with limited research opportunities, are strongly encouraged to apply.

"There is not a great pipeline for getting diverse or underrepresented students into scientific roles, so programs like this make it possible for students to gain early research experience that they can add to their CVs. It also positions them favorably for the future, opening doors more easily with the connections and critical knowledge they've gained," Hughes said.

Throughout the summer, the students made significant progress on their research projects, honing laboratory techniques and enhancing scientific knowledge. The program culminated in the Summer Health Research Symposium, where they presented their findings, either orally or through posters. The symposium featured a keynote speaker, Dr. Carmela Evans Molina, a renowned physician-researcher in the diabetes field and director of the Indiana Diabetes Research Center at the Indiana University School of Medicine, who shared her insights into pursuing a career in medicine and research.

“I wanted to participate in this program to gain experience in the lab," said Grace Matocha,

an OHIO junior majoring in Cellular and Molecular Biology who was mentored by Fabian Benencia, associate professor in the Heritage College. "It provided me the opportunity to focus solely on developing experimental design skills, along with an array of other techniques that I typically do not have time to hone during the school year. As someone who hopes to make a career out of research, this was a great way to get a glimpse into what day-to-day life might look like. It was also a crucial step in building the needed expertise before applying for jobs after graduation."

Matocha’s project focused on studying diabetes from an immunologist's perspective, looking at how hyper- and hypo-glycemic environments influenced macrophage phenotype and function.

“I learned what it looked like to be a scientist in the real world,” Matocha added. “I learned a lot about funding and the behind the scenes of what it takes to be able to carry out extensive and thorough research, as well as how supportive the research community is.”

The DISIRE cohort enjoys summer in Athens and time away from researching at Strouds Run State Park.

The program offered more than just scientific knowledge though, fostering a sense of community among the students. They lived together on campus, explored Athens, attended events, and formed lasting bonds while creating professional connections with each other.

“This experience has helped me personally and professionally, allowing me to gain a new perspective in this field of study while connecting me with researchers not only from OHIO but other institutions as well,” Vasistha said. “Dr. Hughes was incredible to work with too, ensuring I was and still am constantly supported. She has continued to be a mentor to me following the program, regularly checking in and offering resources to help me get more exposure to the field of study and research in general. She and this program have helped me establish my future goals and figure out those next steps to making my dreams a reality.”

Kopchick, who is the principal investigator on the grant, is a professor and Goll-Ohio Eminent Scholar. He is assisted on the grant by Nunemaker, an associate professor and Osteopathic Heritage Foundation Ralph S. Licklider, D.O., Endowed Faculty Fellow in Diabetes and Islet Biology, Kevin Lee, associate professor, and Beverly, professor and Osteopathic Heritage Foundation Ralph S. Licklider, D.O., Endowed Professor in Behavioral Diabetes, all in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.

October 17, 2023
Samantha Pelham