SURF’s Up: Students Forgo Fun in Sun for Hands-on Research This Summer

UH Undergrads Explore Solutions for Alzheimer’s, Cancer and Other Challenges

Solutions for Alzheimer’s, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, migraines and lymphoma are just some of the medical challenges a group of University of Houston students have targeted this summer. Forgoing fun in the sun for some serious research, these students are part of an intensive, full-time research program – the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF).

Far from SURF-ing their way through what’s vacation time for many, these students are just a few of this year’s 74 SURF participants who delved into a number of complex projects during the course of 10 weeks under the mentorship of UH faculty members. Working on projects across a variety of disciplines, each scholar received a $3,500 scholarship.

“It’s well known that when students engage in activities such as mentored research, their likelihood of graduating is significantly increased,” said Karen Weber, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. “Over the past years, we have found that students who participate in SURF, the Provost’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship program or the Senior Honors Thesis program have a greatly improved graduation rate as compared to those who did not participate.”

Adelle FloresAdelle Flores, a junior biomedical sciences major in The Honors College, said she has always been interested in Alzheimer’s disease, but even more so when her grandmother died of complications from it. When she came across an opportunity to research in a lab that studies drugs to combat Alzheimer’s, she had to take it. Working under the mentorship of College of Pharmacy associate professor Jason Eriksen, Flores is working on determining if a molecule released by cells lining blood vessels, called prostacyclin, is protective in Alzheimer’s disease.

“In the future, my work could be used to potentially develop a drug that targets Alzheimer’s disease, or at the very least could help treat some of the symptoms caused by it,” Flores said. “My experience in the SURF program has been absolutely phenomenal, and it’s opened up a whole new world to me about all types of research.”

This year, SURF alumni have come back to speak with the current SURF students about how they continued researching and turned it into a career. In addition to her own research experiences, this has inspired Flores to become even more dedicated to her studies, Flores said, as well as motivated her to perform well in school so that she can pursue research later as an M.D./Ph.D.

Similarly inspired by personal experiences, senior biology major Simon Powell remembers feeling helpless when he was growing up, watching his mother suffer from debilitating migraines that medications never seemed to alleviate. When he joined the lab of associate biology and biochemistry professor Jokubas Ziburkus in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and heard that one project was related to migraine mechanisms, he jumped at the chance to help.

“Some people who get migraines experience visual disturbances or ‘auras’ that may appear as spreading grey blobs or geometric patterns right before the pain starts,” Powell said. “The term cortical spreading depression (CSD) describes the temporarily disturbed electrical activity in cells that slowly spreads across a region of the brain’s surface and causes these auras. While we do know quite a lot about the specific changes that happen during CSD, nobody really knows why it starts or how it might trigger the pain of a migraine.”

Simon PowellIn Ziburkus’ lab, they are able to visually see and make video recordings of the electrical disturbances caused by CSD, Powell said, so he helped build a replica model of the cells in a computer program where changes can be made in their environment to simulate CSD and the cell response. He hopes experimenting with this model will help with finding ways to prevent migraines or reduce their severity.

“Right now, we can use this computer model to search for clues about why CSD happens,” Powell said. “In the future, we hope to be able to simulate the addition of different drugs that may help us identify potential treatments for migraine pain.”

Participating in the SURF program has been an eye-opening experience, Powell said, giving him an opportunity to apply and build upon what he’s learned in his classes, as well as helping him to understand how that class material is relevant. Powell’s participation in SURF is funded by a special agreement between the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Biology of Behavior Institute (BoBI). BoBI is a research institute at UH dedicated to understanding behavior from broad perspectives that span from evolution to molecular neuroscience.

Echoing this sentiment, Thao Do, a sophomore majoring in chemistry, said the research she’s done in the SURF program gave her a good opportunity to apply the things she studied in textbooks and class to a real-life project. Working under the mentorship of College of Optometry professor Alan Burns, Do has been studying metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of disorders that include systemic inflammation, abdominal obesity, hypertension, elevated fasting glucose levels and insulin resistance progressing to type 2 diabetes.

“Metabolic syndrome, especially diabetes, is a very serious risk factor for disease, and it negatively impacts the cornea and its healing response to injury,” Do said. “Our hypothesis is that metabolic syndrome results in corneal nerve fiber changes and corneal dysfunction due to obesity-associated inflammation that precedes the development of diabetes. Our preliminary data suggest that replacing a high-fat diet with a low-fat one reverses corneal nerve damage and increases corneal sensitivity. Thus, a low-fat diet is not only important for reversing obesity, but also has the potential to restore corneal nerve structure and function, thereby restoring visual acuity.”

Do said the opportunity this summer to learn a new method of collecting data using electron microscopic 3-D reconstruction has allowed her to generate quantitative data for a precise assessment of disease and recovery.

Also learning a valuable new skill, Taylor Hinchliffe, who is on track to graduate in December from The Honors College with degrees in both biology and Chinese studies, said he now has a better understanding of the entire process of conceptualizing something, translating the idea into a feasible and executable plan, and carrying out the experiments. Hinchliffe is working in the lab of Cullen College of Engineering assistant professor Tianfu Wu in the area of nanomedicine and drug delivery.

“We’re attempting to create a nanoparticle drug delivery system capable of targeting cancerous B lymphoma cells, while sparing normal, non-diseased cells,” Hinchliffe said. “I’m taking aim at cancerous immune system cells, testing them in cell cultures to see if I can knock them out without harming healthy cells. The goal is to develop a drug delivery system that sends therapeutics to a more specific place, instead of nuking a wide range of tissue, which would result in far fewer side effects.”

Thinking long-term, Hinchliffe is interested in pursuing medicine, surgery and global health from the lens of a physician scientist as an M.D./Ph.D. He describes his SURF experience as “amazing,” giving him a new perspective in learning how to learn in general, particularly since he came from a biology background to perform biomedical engineering research in Wu’s lab. To his greatest surprise, it led him to a newly found enjoyment of math and engineering.

Glenn FrutizAnother biology major in his senior year, Glenn Frutiz, also came upon an unexpected revelation, calling his SURF experience “sobering,” as he expected to get the hang of things quickly. The many experimental procedures he learned, however, showed him the experiments must be performed with the utmost precision and care, requiring a great deal of trial and error to master the required skills.

Under the mentorship of biology and biochemistry assistant professor Tasneem Bawa-Khalfe in the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, Frutiz, who is a student in The Honors College, researched how androgens, the steroid hormones known for affecting male characteristics, affect the growth of breast cancer cells that contain the androgen receptor protein. With the goal of clarifying conflicting results in literature with regard to this process in breast cancer, Frutiz worked with Bawa-Khalfe and her team to evaluate how site-specific mutations of the androgen receptor affect the growth of breast cancer cells.

“I became interested in this topic after my professor taught our molecular biology class that the proteins around which our DNA is wound can be modified,” Frutiz said. “I was fascinated by how proteins could be slightly altered for different purposes and how those changes could have implications such as gene silencing.”

This year’s SURF program wraps up Aug. 7, and by the end, the students will present research posters on their projects at UH’s 11th annual Undergraduate Research Day Oct. 22. For more information, visit


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