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Summer Program Expands Students’ Appreciation of Research

all 12 students in the summer research training program 2023 in front of a bus

For more than 20 years, the College of Veterinary Medicine has provided veterinary students with the opportunity to explore the world of research through the Summer Research Training Program (SRTP). In 2023, a dozen students who had completed their first or second year of study toward a veterinary degree participated.

Dr. Megan Mahoney, an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Biosciences, directs the program. She says SRTP allows students to “gain training in the nature and practice of science as well as learn about becoming a veterinary scientist.”

After they are accepted into the program, students are matched with a faculty mentor. Mentors hail from not only the veterinary college but also the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Grainger Engineering, and the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. One student’s mentor team even included a person from the Amol University of Special Modern Technologies in Iran.

Clownfish to Toxoplasmosis

“Our students engaged with a wide range of research topics this year,” said Dr. Mahoney. “They worked on sex change in clownfish, killifish evolution, horse orthopedics, toxoplasmosis, ticks and native plants, wild fox genetics, testicular cancer, deer and relationship to COVID spread, ultrasonic vocalizations in mice, ticks and dog owners, the impact of pesticides on ovaries, and hormones and reproduction in rats.”

Mentors help students formulate a hypothesis, design experiments, collect and analyze data, and prepare an abstract, manuscript, and poster—all in the span of 10 weeks. The final phase of the program involves presenting a research poster. Participants do this first within the college and later at the Veterinary Scholars Symposium.

Illinois SRTP students and director Megan Mahoney pose in Puerto Rico, where the national symposium was held.
Dr. Megan Mahoney (center) posed with the Illinois students who attended the symposium in Puerto Rico. The photo at the top of the story shows all 12 students who participated in the SRTP. That day, they traveled to Purdue University to meet with the veterinary students in SRTP there.

In 2023, the symposium took place in Puerto Rico during the first weekend in August. This event, presented by the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges with support from Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health, unites SRTP participants from many accredited veterinary colleges. Jordan Demanty and Justin Huff were among the Illinois students who attended.

‘A Great Learning Experience’

Jordan Demanty in front of her research poster at symposium
Jordan Demanty at the poster session in Puerto Rico.

The program placed Demanty with Dr. William Witola, an associate professor of parasitology in the Department of Pathobiology. She studied the role of host genes in Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan parasite that may cause miscarriages, encephalitis, and blindness in mammals. Specifically, she looked at how the gene PDCD6 affects the survival of T. gondii in macrophages, a type of white blood cell responsible for breaking down foreign substances and bacteria in the body.

She has an interest in ophthalmology, so she felt that this project was a good fit due to Toxoplasma’s profound ocular implications.

“I wanted to learn more about research because it is such an important aspect of medicine,” she said. “Being a part of the summer research project has been a great learning experience, and I have been lucky to work with such a supportive and hard-working group.”

Her favorite part of the program was seeing how much behind-the-scenes work goes into publishing a research article.

‘A New Aspect of Veterinary Medicine’

Justin Huff presenting his poster at the symposium
Justin Huff presenting his poster at the symposium.

Huff has an interest in endocrinology (the study of hormones) and reproduction. He joined the laboratory of Dr. Jodi Flaws, a professor in the Department of Comparative Biosciences. His research project evaluated the effects of Imidacloprid, a common pesticide, on canine ovaries. The study’s findings were “significant in understanding and addressing potential reproductive health concerns for companion animals,” he said.

Overall, Huff said his experience “deepened my passion for scientific research and its potential impact on both human and animal well-being.”

He particularly mentioned gaining knowledge about “mentorship and how to facilitate a positive mentor experience, strategies and resources for writing a scientific poster and manuscript, and how to be a responsible researcher.

“Most importantly,” he said, “the program has exposed me to a new aspect of veterinary medicine by introducing the important role that veterinarians play in biomedical research.”

By Alaina Lamp