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Marquis Scholar Elizabeth Ponder ’04 (Oaks, Pa.) has recently published articles in two scientific journals and been selected as one of just ten undergraduate students in the nation to participate in a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) program.

Ponder, who is majoring in biochemistry with a second, individualized major in cultural biomedicine, coauthored an article about the physiology of a parasitic flatworm in the journal Parasitology Research with professors emeriti Bernard Fried (biology) and Joseph Sherma (chemistry). She also coauthored an article with Fried about the effects of temperature on the flatworm that was published in Journal of Helminthology. The articles reported on work conducted through Lafayette’s EXCEL Scholars program, in which students assist faculty with research while earning a stipend. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year go on to publish their research in academic journals and/or present it at conferences.

Ponder is now conducting research in Claremont, Calif., at the Keck Graduate Institute’s Summer Undergraduate Research in Biotechnology and Bioengineering. In the program, part of the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates, Ponder is working to develop a faster, more cost-efficient method of screening cancer drugs for toxic or beneficial effects.

She is developing a two-dimensional microarray of human cells. Microarrays are usually comprised of small segments of DNA printed in patterns on a glass microscope slide using a machine called a DNA microarrayer, Ponder explains. The device can be programmed to print upwards of 10,000 spots, each with a diameter of about 0.150 mm, in a variety of patterns. The small size of these spots allows the entire genome (genetic material) of some organisms to be organized and printed on a single microscope slide. These microarrays of DNA are commonly used in genetics and molecular biology.

Ponder and her mentor, Dr. Brenda Mann of the Keck Graduate Institute, are trying to adapt this same machine that prints segments of DNA to print small clusters of cells onto microscope slides.

“Since the machine can print multiple solutions in multiple patterns on a single slide, a variety of cell types could be printed on one slide,” says Ponder, a recipient earlier this year of the national Goldwater Scholarship, the premier undergraduate award of its type in the fields of mathematics, science, and engineering. “The whole slide, containing microscopic clusters of normal and cancerous cells, could then be screened with potential chemotherapy agents or other chemical compounds. In this method, the amount of cells and drugs required is reduced and many cell types can be examined simultaneously. Therefore, this type of screening for toxic or beneficial effects of potential drugs is likely to be faster and more cost efficient than current drug discovery methods.”

The Keck Graduate Institute is a unique learning environment, taking an interdisciplinary approach to science. The faculty come from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from economics to biology, but pursue the common goal of preparing students for both the business and science sides of the biotechnology industry, says Ponder. In addition to providing funding for undergraduate research this summer, the REU program at Keck includes seminars by outside scientists covering topics in both academic research and industry.

“So far, my experience at Keck has provided me with the chance to experience research at a graduate institution as well as the chance to meet and work with a diverse group of undergraduates from schools across the country,” says Ponder. “I hope that my research this summer, in combination with the EXCEL research I have done at Lafayette College, will better prepare me for graduate school and a career in research.”

Ponder presented her Lafayette research on the evolution of the red ribbon, a prominent symbol of AIDS awareness in the early 1990s, at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research March 13-15 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her adviser for the project was Andrea Smith, assistant professor of anthropology and sociology.

“While I hope to study HIV/AIDS in the future as a research scientist, I know that AIDS, as well as other medical conditions, requires more than just a scientific understanding,” she says. “There are numerous social, economic, political, and cultural factors that impact how individuals and societies view heath, sickness, and specific diseases. The level of understanding needed to develop plans to treat and prevent a disease requires examining the disease from multiple perspectives as well as the context in which the disease is viewed.”

Ponder is a recipient of the Eugene P. Chase Phi Beta Kappa Prize, awarded to sophomores who have demonstrated scholarship as first-year students. She was a member of the McKelvy House Scholars program, in which 15-20 students of high academic achievement and promise reside together in an historic off-campus house and participate in shared intellectual and social activities. She is a member of the campus chapter of American Chemical Society and plays saxophone and flute in student musical ensembles. She was a founding member of Lafayette’s mock trial team.

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