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When Tim Byrnes’05 (West Chester, Pa.) chose Lafayette for his undergraduate education, he did so because of the many opportunities the College offers students to explore areas that interest them. By the end of his sophomore year, he had completed an externship, an internship, an independent study project, and plenty of volunteer work.

Last semester, Byrnes, a biology major and biotechnology/bioengineering minor, began his second independent study project investigating the growth of rat breast tumor cells.

“A great deal of research has been dedicated towards mono-layer, plate-grown cultures of tumor cells,” he says. “However, the problem with these models is that they do not encapsulate the in vivo [within a living organism] conditions present in humans diagnosed with cancer.”

One of Byrnes’ two independent study advisers, Robert Kurt, assistant professor of biology, says one of the fundamental research steps was determining whether the mouse breast cancer cell line would grow tumor cells in suspension. They succeeded in establishing this, according to Byrnes.

Step two involved determining the rate of tumor growth by measuring the cells every 24 hours for multiple cultures. Once a growth rate was established, T-cells – a type of immune cells — were introduced to the tumor “to see the rate at which these cells break down the tumor cells,” says Byrnes.

Byrnes’ adviser for the chemical engineering aspect of his research was Polly R. Piergiovanni, associate professor of chemical engineering, whose lab equipment was used to grow the cells in suspension. She expects the work to be published with Byrnes acknowledged as a coauthor.

“Working with tumor cells is an advancing field, and one which I had never really had an opportunity to investigate before,” Byrnes says. “This was a great opportunity to learn about another field of biology from a hands-on perspective.”

Working on a project that brought together chemical engineering and biology excited him.

“With the announcement of a biomedical engineering major for the future, I feel that this is the first step toward fully reaching a level at which Lafayette can produce engineers who can apply the biological sciences to engineering technology,” he says. “It is also great to see professors from two different departments working together and learning from each other.”

Byrnes says that both Piergiovanni, who guided his work with bioreactors, and Kurt, who helped him with cell counts and measurements, “are amazing professors with knowledge that runs the gamut from immunology to bioreactor technology and then some.”

“The support that both of my advisers gave really helped to bring me through to each new step along the way,” he says. “Having a chance to work on a project that has only begun to be researched by laboratory scientists helped to put into perspective what I can do with my degree.

“In my opinion, the strongest aspect of a biology degree at Lafayette is the opportunity to work alongside professors through independent study or thesis projects. These projects help students to see what goes on beyond the classroom and into the laboratory setting found in ‘the real world.’ All in all, I am pleased with the education and the opportunities that I have had here at Lafayette.”

“Tim has great laboratory techniques and quickly learns new techniques,” says Kurt. “One of his best strengths, I think, is that he is always asking questions. He has a genuine interest in doing his best work and therefore puts in the time and effort to make sure he is doing everything as best he can.”

Piergiovanni agrees. “Tim already had many of the skills needed for this project, but he learned to work with large-scale cultures and other equipment as the project continued.”

During spring 2004, he was involved in another independent study project advised by Laurie Caslake, assistant professor of biology, that focused on the diversity of merA operons present in microbes in Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, N.Y. An operon is a site on a bacterial chromosome containing genes that control protein synthesis (structural genes) together with a gene that determines whether the structural genes are active or not (operator gene).

In 2002, he investigated sea turtles in Costa Rica through a natural resources summer internship with San Francisco State University. Byrnes’ other activities have included an externship at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey; trapping bears and gathering histological samples with Jane E. Huffman, graduate coordinator and professor of biological sciences at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania; the International Student Volunteers Program in Costa Rica and Australia during the summers of 2003 and 2004; and Lafayette’s Alternative School Break at the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota during spring 2004.

In addition, Byrnes serves as a resident adviser and a member of the Residence Life Activities Committee and Hoff Awards selection committee. He competed on the Crew Club for two years.

A leading cancer researcher, Kurt has received National Science Foundation and Department of Defense grants totaling more than $350,000 since 2001. He served as a scientific reviewer for the Immunological Sciences Review Panel for the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs for Prostate Cancer Research in 2001 and 2003. His research has been published in many scientific journals.

A specialist in biochemical engineering, Piergiovanni researches cell-dependent problems that have applications in pharmaceutical and biochemical industries. She has advised over 25 students, published 13 papers, and presented at 22 conferences, including those of the American Society for Engineering Education, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and the International Chemical Congress of Pacific Basin Societies. Piergiovanni received National Science Foundation grants in both 1992 and 2002.

Independent study courses are among several major opportunities at Lafayette that make the College 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 last year’s annual conference.

Categorized in: Academic News