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Undergrads claim top honors for research into public health and degenerative brain disease

July 2, 2013
By Rachel Griess

Victoria Frank had one of those moments: imagining the sick person on an airplane sending pathogens airborne through a sneeze or cough, and triggering a domino effect of infectious disease that could spark an epidemic.

Highest Honors

Victoria Frank, a senior in microbiology, researched influenza in the context of public health for an award-winning project this spring.The scenario inspired her review of research literature and led to an analysis titled, “Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response to the 2009 H1N1 Influenza Outbreak in the United States.” Frank’s project was one of two from the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and one of just a handful campuswide, to claim Highest Honors at the 2013 Celebrate Undergraduate Research and Creativity showcase.

“I think a bacterium is awesome,” said Frank, a senior in microbiology. “It’s amazing how something so little can have such great impact on human health.”

Keifer Walsh, a recent graduate in microbiology, won accolades for research into neurodegenerative disease.  Keifer Walsh, who graduated this spring with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, was the other student from the college to win CSU’s highest acclaim at the research showcase for a project probing aspects of degenerative brain disease.

The two microbiology students had projects deemed among the best of 366 total writing, research, art and service-learning projects displayed at CURC in late April.

Tradition of academic excellence

The two represent a tradition of academic excellence in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences: During the past five years alone, students in the college have accounted for less than 3 percent of the CSU undergraduate population, yet have earned an average of 20 percent of all CURC distinction awards.

Walsh said he was paired while still in high school with his advisor, James Bamburg, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and has worked in Bamburg’s lab ever since.

“Since freshman year, I’ve researched neuroscience, particularly oxidative stress and causative factors. It seems like the further I get in my research, the more questions I have,” said Walsh, who is continuing his lab work this summer as a graduate student in cell and molecular biology. His CURC research poster was titled, “Cofilin-Actin Rods form in Response to Oxidative Stress and Neural Inflammation as a Precursor to Neurodegenerative Disease.”

Honors Undergraduate Research Scholars Program

As freshmen, Walsh and Frank both entered the CSU Honors Undergraduate Research Scholars Program, and in the program have been expected to participate in CURC, which showcases undergraduate research and fosters academic partnerships among students and faculty.

Most of the CURC exhibits are poster presentations. Yet Frank said she wanted to take a different approach this spring and hoped to present her analysis in a way that might be relevant to a broad audience.

Her 43-page investigation of emergency preparedness for the H1N1 flu outbreak was developed from countless hours of research and review of more than 50 articles, academic journals, reports and government papers.

'I’ve talked science my whole life'

“I spend my summers at the Colorado Serum Company doing research on bacteria,” Frank said. “With my mom, a chemist, and my dad, a doctor, I’ve talked science my whole life. I know how exciting it can be once you get away from the jargon and charts. For CURC, I wanted to present my ideas in a way more people would understand.”

Before Walsh’s project won highest honors at CURC this spring, it was awarded Best Undergraduate Poster for the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in fall 2012. He also was invited to present his project and ideas during a prion conference in Fort Collins, an experience that helped Walsh understand connections among scientific disciplines.

New possiblities, new questions

“That’s the amazing thing about this project. It isn’t even about prions,” Walsh said. “But one discovery or conclusion creates new possibilities and new questions. When I began my research, I could have never guessed it would lead me to what I am learning today.”

Walsh now has his sights set on medical school, while Frank will complete her undergraduate microbiology degree in spring 2014 and plans to pursue graduate studies in public health.