Scientific Inquiry Leads to an Explosion of Success
"If motivation and interest are a flame, then I’ll throw kerosene on it,” says biology associate professor Mark Cline. And in his Curie Hall laboratory, he feeds those flames of student interest in research, which results in cutting-edge knowledge in neuroscience and published articles in some of the most respected peer-reviewed journals in the nation. His students learn research from start to finish — how to design and conduct studies and then publish results.
“You have to have motivation and ambition to survive in this lab,” Cline says. “It’s okay to make a mistake if you’re trying to do something or to accomplish something.”
Junior biology major Brandon Newmyer experienced this philosophy firsthand. “The second experiment I ever ran, I totally messed it up. But Dr. Cline was okay with that. The experience taught me to be more careful and detail oriented,” Newmyer says.
Such persistence and care paid off in March, when Newmyer was awarded the 2011 Goldwater Scholarship from the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program. The award is widely regarded as the highest honor for undergraduate students in the sciences. The scholarship provides up to $7,500 a year for educational expenses. Competition for the award is intense. Other institutions represented in the list of this year’s recipients include Yale, Harvard and the University of Virginia.
“Brandon Newmyer is the embodiment of taking advantage of opportunities,” says J. Orion Rogers, dean of RU’s College of Science and Technology. “He has earned the highest honor ever bestowed upon a science student at Radford University. His mentor, Dr. Cline, is an example of a faculty member who helps students find their passion in learning and go places they never imagined they could go. This achievement is tangible evidence that Radford University is a destination for motivated students to learn from extraordinary faculty members and to achieve success they never dreamed was possible.”
From the first semester of his freshman year, Newmyer worked shoulder to shoulder with Cline studying neurotransmitters that could regulate appetite. “You’re doing research that’s never been done,” Newmyer says. “We’re not replicating experiments. The research we publish is novel information. Maybe someday a scientist will use my information to help create obesity treatments.”
Newmyer is one of about 30 undergraduate students since 2005 who have conducted research under Cline’s tutelage. Typically a single student is assigned to a study, and several studies are conducted simultaneously. Each study is focused on a particular neurotransmitter or hormone and how it influences several appetite-related processes.
During his three years at RU, Newmyer has published seven articles in middle-tier peer-reviewed journals. He was first author for three of them — a rare accomplishment for an undergraduate student, Cline says. “It’s not so uncommon for a student to work in a lab, usually at a large university, contribute a little something to a project and then have their name slapped on the work after the professor writes it. Here at RU the students are designing the experiments, conducting them and writing up the work themselves.”
“Peer-reviewed” means that a journal sends the submitted manuscript to at least three scientists to evaluate the work and determine if it is worthy of publication. The author of the manuscript does not know who the scientists are, but is able to read their comments. For an undergraduate student to be a first author in a peer-reviewed journal is significant. “The work of Radford undergraduate students is being evaluated by the scientific community and is deemed worthy of publication,” Cline says.
During his freshman year, Newmyer ran predesigned experiments that involved a neurotransmitter from the RF amide group to learn the science that Cline uses in his laboratory. During his sophomore year, Newmyer designed his own studies. “The idea for the study comes from him,” Cline says of his student. “He designs the study and is responsible for making sure that we have the supplies and materials on hand that we need to complete the study. He also schedules animal care, analyzes his data and prepares the manuscript. I plunge students into the deep end so they have to learn fast.”
Newmyer learned a quick doggy paddle that graduated into an Olympics-worthy breast stroke. “One of the things that I’m most proud of,” Newmyer says, “is designing a study with obese and anorexic chicks using neuropeptide AF and testing how this peptide affects appetite in these chicks.” He says one of the best parts of the experience was working with nationally acclaimed scientist Paul Siegel, Virginia Tech’s University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Animal and Poultry Science. Cline had worked in Siegel’s lab while earning his Ph.D. at Virginia Tech and opened the door for Newmyer to learn from his mentor.
“I worked one-on-one with Dr. Siegel in the writing of the research paper. He gave me a lot of advice and talked to me about how the editing process worked for the Journal of Neuroendocrinology,” Newmyer says. Newmyer’s article was published in the June 22, 2010, edition of the journal. He is the first author, with Siegel and Cline as co-authors. “That’s the longest and most developed article that I have ever written,” Newmyer says. “The great thing was that I could tell that Dr. Siegel thought I knew what I was doing. That meant something — that he approved of me.”
Last summer Newmyer took the lead in adapting an assay, which uses chemicals to identify activated neurons and observe how treatments affect the brain. Cline and Newmyer were using an assay that suddenly stopped working. “Sometimes assays just stop working for unexplained reasons,” Cline says. “Perhaps our antibody stocks became contaminated or there were problems with the synthesis by the vendor. Either way, we needed an alternative to what we had been using and Brandon provided it for us. His hard work, determination and acumen improved the research process in our laboratory, and this is only the beginning of the impact he is going have on the scientific community. The possibilities in his future are endless.”