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Biology major Michael Werner ’07 (Neenah, Wis.) recently studied a set of immune cells that are an important means for fighting cancer.

Throughout the summer, Werner looked at how tumor cells might affect the number of immune cells, or T cells, in mice. He collaborated with Robert Kurt, assistant professor of biology, a leading cancer researcher whose work has been supported by major grants from the National Science Foundation and Department of Defense.

“In simple terms, your body has many different T cells that recognize many different diseases,” Kurt explains. “When you get a disease, the T cells that are needed to protect you from it must proliferate, or multiply, to create an army of cells that can attack the disease. If one gets cancer, the T cells that recognize it should proliferate to create an army of cells that can attack the cancer. If the ability to proliferate is inhibited, the immune system loses its ability to mount an effective anti-tumor response.”

Kurt and Werner worked together through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, which allows students to conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

After the project began, Werner became a Nalven Fellow. Each year, Lafayette’s David M. Nalven ’88 Research Assistantship enables a student to engage in ecological/environmental summer research with a biology professor.

“My role as a novice researcher was to shadow Dr. Kurt, emulate how he navigated the lab and negotiated obstacles in the scientific method, and apply these strategies to my own research,” Werner says, adding that keeping a laboratory diary helped him to track observations and results. “I had invaluable hands-on experience and one-on-one instruction in Dr. Kurt’s lab.”

Werner’s job was to decipher whether a substance produced by tumor cells caused T cells to inhibit proliferation. He worked through a series of experiments and then studied the T cells through an enzyme-linked immunosorbant assay (ELISA), which helps detect DNA in T cells.

“In spite of the grueling pace of his laboratory, [Dr. Kurt’s] relaxed demeanor and his unmistakable patience created a relaxed atmosphere that was very pleasant to work in,” Werner notes.

Werner was a fast learner, Kurt says. His dedication to the research allowed him to accomplish more than Kurt had expected.

Even in the less personal setting of the classroom during the school year, Werner found that he was still able to ask Kurt questions in and out of class and get to know him.

“Now that I’ve worked with him, our relationship has developed into a classic mentor-protege dynamic where we are friends on the personal level and colleagues at the professional level,” Werner says.

He is looking forward to his next three years at Lafayette.

“My first year serves as evidence that the next three will be quite promising,” he says. “Lafayette has provided an unparalleled opportunity to work closely with professors.”

Werner is a member of Lafayette’s crew team and the Army ROTC program. He plays trumpet in Lafayette’s jazz and brass ensembles and volunteers with the Alternative School Break Club, which organizes trips in the United States and abroad to conduct service projects.

“I believe Lafayette is the best environment for undergraduate research,” Werner says. “In fact, this was the selling point that brought me to Lafayette.”

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty-two students were accepted to present their work at the last annual conference in April.

Categorized in: Academic News