Student’s Undergraduate Research Selected for Award

March 28, 2016

A paper on cancer research done by Emporia State University junior Christopher Alderman has been chosen to receive a Great Plains Honors Council Boe Award next month at the group’s annual conference.

He also will present his paper, “The in vitro and in vivo effects of MicroRNA-15a on human malignant melanoma and the newly discovered target gene of microRNA-15a,” during the conference. The Great Plains region includes Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

He is one of six students who will receive cash prizes and plaques that accompany the award.

Alderman, who is from Emporia majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology, is a student in the Honors College that replaced the honors program at Emporia State in 2014. He is the second Emporia State student to receive the Dennis Boe Award, established in 2008 by the Great Plains Honors Council.

“Chris is an absolutely outstanding student,” said Dr. Gary Wyatt, associate provost and Honors College director. “The award is very, very competitive, very difficult to win. ... His paper was phenomenal, so he’s very deserving of this award. Kudos to him and the faculty members that worked with him.”

The shift from a program to a formal College division has enabled undergraduate students to work one-on-one with professors and to conduct research at a level traditionally reserved for graduate students, Alderman said.

“It’s really top-notch, and we’re really riding the same wave as some of the other big research institutions,” he said, explaining that the Honors College has equipment, resources and materials the honors program could not provide. “We have 24/7 access with really nice facilities.”

The university made a conscious decision, based on research, to upgrade the honors program to Honors College status as an investment in students’ education and to provide resources and experiences they otherwise would not have.

“To be blunt, we are allocating resources to make that possible, and we have dedicated faculty enabling that to happen,” Wyatt said. “If a university really wants students to reach their potential, it really needs to provide those kinds of opportunities.”

Unlike the honors program, the Honors College also offers more enhanced honors courses, small scholarships and increased opportunities for travel for professional meetings and additional studies, plus to civic leadership training through faculty and the Kansas Leadership Center.

Research has shown that those types of high-impact practices also contribute to greater retention of students and greater graduation rates and success afterwards, Wyatt said.

For Alderman, being part of the Honors College coupled with winning the Boe competition strengthens his ability to reach a dual doctoral degree goal he set when as a teen he learned his grandfather had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

He had been overwhelmed by the certainty of his grandfather’s outcome, while simultaneously realizing that modern medicine had allowed his glassblowing teacher at Emporia High School, Alan Keck, to survive lung cancer. That awareness, and another EHS teacher who piqued his interest in biology, anatomy and physiology, made him determined to become both an M.D. and a Ph.D.

“I was fascinated by it because it saved one of my favorite teachers and allowed him to teach these kids in the high school,” Alderman said.

With Dr. Eric Yang, chair of the ESU biological sciences department, as lead mentor, Alderman plunged into research a few weeks into his freshman year at Emporia State.

“He’s highly motivated and self-initiating,” Yang said.

Alderman explored options beyond traditional chemotherapy that, in the past, has killed too many cells in addition to the cancerous ones, and carried side effects that sometimes were worse than the cancer itself. “Targeted therapy” seemed promising but was rendered ineffective because the tumors developed resistance to the treatment.

“Now, we are working on therapies that are able to target multiple targets, like miRNA,” Alderman said. “In our project, we found a specific miRNA that successfully inhibits the proliferation and invasiveness of melanoma and we also found one of its direct targets, thereby elucidating its mechanism.”

Alderman’s results were affirmed using in vitro — studies using human cells in cultures — and in vivo — studies with mice. 

He plans to continue his research and, after earning dual degrees, to teach doctors and to continue research on national and international health issues, with focus on cancer research.

Yang is optimistic about the direction taken in the research to employ the “microRNA” cells — naturally present in human bodies — to target genes to combat metastasized melanoma that commonly are refractory to existing therapy regimen with media lifetime of six to nine months.

“I think this kind of ‘cocktail treatment’ of combining microRNAs with conventional targeted therapy might be the future of melanoma treatment,” Yang said, adding that type of treatment is not showing severe side effects.

Alderman has been working on his current project for about two years, with both he and Yang often working in the lab until late into the night or early morning.

“You can’t choose your time,” Yang said. “Experiments actually force you to come for lab work. That’s quite common for biomedical researchers to work late into the night and on weekends.”

And Alderman always seems to find a way to be studying and learning. Under Yang’s admirable guidance, which Alderman treasures, he has published one article and has his second submitted for publication.

On a field trip with four other students from his lab to the Rocky Mountains to study nature and take soil samples to screen bacteria that produce antibiotics, Yang noticed that on every break as they climbed up the mountain, other students relaxed and chatted, while Alderman took the opportunity to learn more.

“Chris actually used all the possible time to read books and journal articles,” Yang said, praising the young man’s interest in science as well as his motivation. “He always has a book in his hand. He actually uses every possible minute, second, to read.”

This week, Alderman emailed Yang with a new research idea that Yang found promising. He asked Alderman to flesh out the idea into a two-page proposal to submit for grant funding.

Sometimes, Yang said, the pair seem more like colleagues than professor and student.

“He comes to my office quite often. We exchange research ideas,” Yang said. “That’s something I really value. I consider my students as my peers.”

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