SURE thing: Students gain experience, conduct research

July 25, 2011

Chase Buchanan is spending his summer helping to determine if a poison dart frog holds the key to a new form of pain relief.

Christopher Gagnon and Eboni Duff are analyzing the chemical make-up of meteorites in an effort to learn more about the origins of the solar system.

The three Indiana State University seniors are among 39 undergraduate students and 11 faculty members taking part in the College of Arts and Sciences' SURE (Summer Undergraduate Research Experiences) program.

The six-year-old program, which began in the chemistry department, serves more students each year and has now expanded to include all of the college's natural science programs, said Stephen Wolf, associate professor of chemistry and the program's coordinator since its inception.

"The SURE program is a great example of our commitment to experiential learning," Wolf said. "Not only are undergraduates actively engaged in research, which is uncommon at many larger universities, they are working hand-in-hand with veteran scientists on significant projects."

Buchanan, who said he "lives for chemistry," is spending hour after hour, day after day, in the lab in an effort to synthesize a substance called phantasmidine. That's a chemical compound secreted by the phantasmal poison-dart frog, which lives in the mountains of Ecuador.

The compound is distantly related to nicotine and has similar biological activity, said Rick Fitch, associate professor of chemistry, who has been researching phantasmidine and other compounds from poison frogs since serving as a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health prior to joining the ISU faculty.

Phantasmidine is similar to epibatidine, another frog compound that is a powerful analgesic, some 500 times more powerful than the opiate morphine, Fitch said. But the key to its use as a pain reliever lies in being able to separate the analgesia from addictive and toxic properties.

"If you can find an analgesic that is not addictive you really have something useful because our front line analgesics for hospital use are opiates, which as are also highly addictive," Fitch said. "Moreover, opiates, such as morphine, have a problem with building tolerance so the dosage must be continually increased to be effective."

Buchanan, who is from North Vernon, originally planned to become a doctor but after becoming involved in research he now wants to pursue a career in chemistry. He is excited that his work in Fitch's lab, tucked away in the basement of the ISU Science Building, may one day lead to a better quality of life for people suffering from pain.

"It's a really great feeling to think that there may be some practical application of this research and that there might be something bigger come out of this," he said.

At the very least, Buchanan said, his experience will likely give him a leg up on other students he applies to graduate school to continue his education.

"Having a summer's worth of research on my record that maybe some other students won't have is going to be quite a boon to my application," he said. "The research itself is teaching me a lot about chemistry that you don't pick up in a lecture course or a lab where you're cooking by the book. It's a lot more problem solving. My ability to adapt and come at new challenges is getting to be a lot better because of the SURE program."

Gagnon, of Terre Haute, and Duff, of Indianapolis, are working with Wolf on the meteorite study. That project continues ongoing research that is a specialty for Wolf and involves the development of methods to analyze trace levels of chlorine, bromine and iodine contained in the space rocks.

The work involves slowly dissolving meteorite samples and analyzing the resulting solution using a sophisticated analytical instrument called an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer.

"Meteorites are essentially complex heterogeneous rocks," Wolf said. "They are composed of different minerals that were essentially made at different times in the solar system. Therefore they have different composition and so different elements are incorporated into different minerals at different concentrations."

Some of the meteorites have been hurtling through the universe for the last four billion years and hold clues to the origin of the solar system, Gagnon noted.

"It's a very humbling experience to hold these samples in your hand and realize how miniscule your existence is compared to what this rock has been through," he said.

Duff, a pre-medicine student, is participating in the SURE program for the first time. She said the additional chemistry lab experience, in which she used the department's mass spectrometer, should prove valuable in answering the large number of chemistry questions she anticipates when she takes the medical college acceptance test later this year.

"I've learned a lot - not only about meteorites but also about the (mass spectromter). I'm going to have to know about different kinds of instruments so it's been a valuable experience for me," she said.

Gagnon has completed his chemistry courses and is pursuing a second major in science education in order to become a chemistry teacher. He will be a student teacher this fall at Sarah Scott Middle School in Terre Haute and then Terre Haute North Vigo High School.

"This research experience will make me a better teacher," he said. "That's one of the reasons I wanted to do it - to find out how science really works so I can teach it. One thing I've really valued is that I've honed my analytical techniques."

Faculty members also value the program for its contribution to their research.

"It is at tremendous benefit for me to have the undergraduate students working in the laboratory," said Fitch. "Not only do they provide a pair of hands to do work, they are active collaborators in the lab. Each one of them contributes actively to their project."

Students selected for the program received research fellowships of $3,500 for full-time participation in the 10-week program and $1,750 for part-time participation. They worked under the supervision of 11 faculty members from the ISU departments of chemistry, physics, biology, and earth and environmental systems as well as the Indiana University School of Medicine. Funding came from research grants obtained by participating faculty and from the College of Arts and Sciences.

Indiana State's commitment to undergraduate research through the SURE program impressed reviewers for the National Science Foundation, which this year awarded a nearly $1.6 million grant to renovate the university's science research labs, Wolf said.

"Six years of hard work is starting to pay off," he said.

Students participating in this year's SURE program will present their research during a symposium July 28 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the basement of the ISU Science Building.

Photos: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Events/2011-Sure-Program/i-tMQg5jZ/0/L/2011-Sure-Program52-L.jpg - Chase Buchanan works in a chemistry lab at Indiana State University. As part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Experiences program, Buchanan is partnering with Richard Fitch, associate professor of chemistry, in studying a chemical compound from a poison dart frog that could potentially be used as a pain-reliever. (ISU/Holley Hiett-Myers)
http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Events/2011-Sure-Program/i-jfC47Wk/0/L/2011-Sure-Program29-L.jpg - Stephen Wolf (seated), associated professor of chemistry at Indiana State University, operates the university's inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer as chemistry majors and summer research fellows Christopher Gagnon and Eboni Duff look on. (ISU/Holley Hiett-Myers)
http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Events/2011-Sure-Program/i-J3nmGLJ/0/L/2011-Sure-Program10-L.jpg - Indiana State University student Christopher Gagnon holds a small segment of a meteorite. Gagnon and fellow chemistry major Eboni Duff are working with Stephen Wolf, associate professor of chemistry, in analyzing the chemical make-up of meteorites. (ISU/Holley-Hiett-Myers)

Contact: Stephen Wolf, associate professor of chemistry, Indiana State University, 812-237-2236 or Stephen.wolf@indstate.edu

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3743 or dave.taylor@indstate.edu