Student researchers present work at annual conference

IMG_3725Last week, FIU’s Honors College hosted the eleventh annual Advanced Research and Creativity in Honors (ARCH) Conference, the culmination of year-long, graduate-level research performed by students across campus.

ARCH showcased work from more than 100 undergraduates from the Colleges of Engineering and Computing, Arts & Sciences, Education, Architecture + The Arts, Business, and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The conference stretched across two days filled with panels, discussions and posters on a wide range of topics including medicine, finance, ecology, human psychology and computer science.

Chavely Valdes-Sanchez, an Honors College ARCH student, has been conducting cancer research for three years in Dr. Irina Agoulnik’s lab at FIU’s College of Medicine. “Most of us know at least one person affected by cancer,” Valdes-Sanchez says, “so I wanted to become more familiar with the topic.”

Valdes-Sanchez’s research focused on identifying how the loss of DAX-1 individual isoforms (a nuclear receptor responsible for sensing steroid and thyroid hormones and certain other molecules) affect tumor cell behavior. Late nights at the lab involved complex processes to deplete levels of DAX-1 isoforms in DU145 prostate cancer cell lines, and SK-OV-3 ovarian cancer cell lines, through a process known as transfection.

The process is tedious, but results were impressive. They indicated that DAX-1 suppresses the rapid growth, movement and invasion of prostate cancer and ovarian cancer cell lines. Valdes-Sanchez also concluded that DAX-1 splice variants have tumor suppressor properties– a finding that may one day help develop effective tumor treatments.

Another student researcher, Valeria Paz, was inspired to conduct her research by news of significant impending changes to Everglades National Park.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Congress created canals, levees and pumping stations to flush water out of the Everglades and into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico after hurricanes in the area caused overwhelming floods. Officials are now planning to reverse this process after observing a 50 percent reduction of the historical wetlands.

The restoration of water flow will undoubtedly have lasting effects on the ecosystem. Paz, a senior Honors College student majoring in marine biology and minoring in chemistry, was concerned. She, along with Professors Michael Heithaus and Jeremy Kiszka, composed a year-long research project focusing on the bottlenose dolphins inhabiting the Everglades.

“It is important to study them now because not much is known about their role in the ecosystem and how the restoration will affect them,” she says.

IMG_3896Paz journeyed into the Everglades to obtain non-invasive biopsies of the dolphins’ skin and blubber. She took her samples to one of FIU’s on-campus laboratories and performed stable isotope analysis – a process that makes it possible to draw direct inferences regarding diet, nourishment and trophic level (the position an animal occupies in a food chain).

With the information collected, Paz has a better understanding of these dolphins, their habits and their place in the Everglades’ ecosystem. Having taken photographs and GPS locations of the dolphins she studied, Paz can continue to follow these dolphins through the changes being made to the Everglades.

Valdes-Sanchez and Paz plan to continue their research and their education at FIU in the fields of medicine and marine biology, respectively. Both credit their experience with ARCH for providing them with an opportunity to further their careers.

JC Espinosa, associate dean of the Honors College and the head of the College’s extensive undergraduate research program, is proud of the valuable work exhibited by the students who participated in ARCH.

“I am always impressed by the quality and variety of the work presented at ARCH each year,” Espinosa says. “The program and the conference also demonstrate our commitment to supporting undergraduate research at FIU.”