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Biology major Allison Morris is studying the effect of high-cholesterol diet and exercise on the hormone levels of female athletes.
August 19, 2016

Freshmen Gain Lab Experiences in Solving Real-World Problems


  • Lowell
Co-op scholars showcase innovative research

At UMass Lowell, high-merit students in the Co-op Scholars Program are given opportunities to conduct summer research after their freshman year. The experience provides students a head start in their chosen career paths by giving them hands-on training in research labs tackling real-world issues. These future professionals are mentored by faculty members, and many of them also collaborate with scientists from the university’s industry partners.

For example, Shailee Paliwal of North Attleboro, a chemical engineering major with a concentration in biology, began researching the use of laser and gold nanoparticles to fight an aggressive form of breast cancer. Another rising sophomore, Allison Morris of Walpole, a biology major with a minor in nutrition, is studying the effect of high-cholesterol diet and exercise on the hormone levels of female athletes.

Biology major Meghan Halpin of Milford is investigating the use of a protein produced by E. coli bacteria to prevent urinary tract infection, while exercise physiology major Stephanie Esker of Upton is collecting and analyzing data on how aerobic exercise affects the recovery of stroke patients.

The students had a chance to present their work to the university community during this year’s Co-op Scholars Poster Showcase. Ninety-two undergraduates from the Kennedy College of Sciences, Francis College of Engineering, College of Health Sciences, College of Fine Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences and Manning School of Business gathered at University Crossing on Aug. 3 for the half-day event. More than 100 family members were also on hand.

Other research projects highlighted at the showcase included 3D printing of food, detecting nuclear radiation, studying child sexual abuse, protecting the Merrimack River watershed and testing UMass Lowell’s first student-designed satellite to be launched into space.

Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and innovation, stressed the value of having such research opportunities so early in one’s career. She said the co-op program “provided a future path for students to continue with the work they had begun over the summer.”

Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney told the students that the experience they gained will have tremendous impact on society in the near future. The program provides unique hands-on research opportunities that enrich the students’ experience, she said.

Using Light and Heat to Kill Malignant Cancer Cells

Paliwal’s research uses photothermal therapy to treat triple-negative breast cancer. This non-invasive method involves shining near-infrared laser light at nanoparticles within the cancerous tumor. “The nanoparticles absorb the light and convert it to heat, which then burns the cancer cell membranes, essentially killing the malignant cells,” she explains.Paliwal’s work was to synthesize the nanoparticles, which consist of a gold core, silica inner shell and gold outer shell measuring only billionths of a meter in size. “The next step would be to add targeting agents to the surface of the particles so that they can bind to cancer cell membranes,” she says.

Paliwal became interested in cancer research ever since she captained a Relay for Life fundraising team for the American Cancer Society during junior high. “Being able to take my interest further, to where I can play a role in developing a treatment for cancer, makes this research very special for me,” she says.

Paliwal collaborated on the project with Derek VanDyke, who was a co-op scholar from last year. Paliwal will continue her research this fall in the lab of chemical engineering Asst. Prof. Prakash Rai.

Possible Health Benefits of High-Cholesterol Diet in Female Athletes

Morris’s research demonstrates that large amounts of high-intensity endurance exercise often leads to a decrease in the levels of the female hormones progesterone and estradiol, which can result in amenorrhea (absence of menstrual cycle) and low bone density in active women.Morris and her collaborators — fellow co-op scholars Morgan Tess (exercise physiology) and Gina Gilstrap (biology) and Ph.D. candidate Lyra Clark — are hoping their lab results will show evidence that a high-cholesterol diet, such as consuming two eggs a day, can stimulate the body’s hormone production. “This could potentially be beneficial to female long-distance in helping prevent bone stress fractures and amenorrhea,” says Morris.

She noted the next phase of the project will include human trials, not just simulations using lab rats. “As a member of the UMass Lowell cross-country and track-and-field teams, I will have the opportunity to continue my research as a test subject in the experiment,” she says.

“I am so grateful to have the opportunity to participate in real scientific research while still a freshman,” says Morris. “Before this experience, I did not consider research as a career option for me. This summer, I learned so much about the different lab techniques and equipment and I am excited to continue to explore and learn about different options for the future.”

Using One Bacteria to Fight Another

Urinary tract infection, or UTI, is a common problem for many women during their lifetime. According to Halpin, about one in five is expected to experience it during adulthood. “The infection is caused most commonly by E. coli, which is responsible for 70 to 95 percent of all UTIs,” she says.


Halpin’s goal is to prevent UTI in women serving in the Army. This summer, she worked on the problem at the Army’s Natick Solider Research, Development and Engineering Center. Her strategy is to use “colicin-E7,” a bacteriocin produced by one strain of E. coli, to kill the competing strain of E. coli that causes UTI.

“We hope to be able to purify colicin-E7 into a stable solution and then incorporate it into an actual product, such as a disposable wipe that soldiers can use to prevent contracting the infection,” she explains.

“I am unbelievably thankful to have had this chance to work in a real military research facility,” she says. “The most important thing I have learned is that in research, you normally don’t get what you are hoping for on your first attempt. Lab work takes a lot of patience, perseverance and curiosity. My other major take-away is that I have gained so much confidence in my lab skills. I feel so prepared for my lab courses this fall semester and for lab settings in the future, knowing that I have 300-plus hours of real-world experience under my belt.”

Lending Stroke Sufferers a Helping Hand

Stroke is the leading cause of serious long-term disability in the United States. Even after undergoing standard rehabilitation regimen, stroke victims still suffer from difficulty in walking and diminished cognitive functions which often leads to reduced mobility and physical activity levels. “It remains unclear as to which training methods and what intensity, dosage and strategies will help optimize the rehabilitation of stroke patients,” notes Esker.In response, Esker and her collaborator on the project — fellow co-op scholar and exercise physiology major Chris Skelly — spent the summer examining the neurological and physiological effects of aerobic exercise on the sensory and motor recovery following a stroke. “The research is special for us because we are collecting not only our own data using motion-capture video cameras and an EMG machine, but we are also collaborating with co-op researchers from the Department of Computer Science to create a soft, wearable sensor that could help predict the risk of falls in stroke patients as well as elderly people. The device would warn the patient, family member or caregiver if a fall is imminent so they can take action to prevent serious injury,” she says.

“Being able to have this research opportunity as a freshman was incredible,” says Esker, who has been accepted into the doctorate of physical therapy program. “I got to experience something most undergrads don’t have the chance to until after their sophomore or junior years.”