Beckman Fellowship Program gives undergraduates a head start in research

Since 1991, the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation has sponsored the Beckman Scholars Program, a 15-month supervised research experience for undergraduate students in chemistry, biological sciences, biochemistry, biomedical engineering, or integrative neuroscience.

Students are paired with a mentor and work on research projects full-time for two successive summers, continuing part-time during the academic year in between. They receive a stipend of $18,200 plus $2,800 for supplies and travel expenses to the Beckman Symposium, where they will exhibit and discuss their research.

Thanks to an expansion of the program in recent years, two undergraduates have been named Binghamton University’s first Beckman Scholars in 2022: Clara Rodriguez, biomedical engineering major and Spanish minor from Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science; and Shruti Venkatesh, a biological sciences major from Harpur College of Arts and Sciences.

Towards treatments for Parkinson’s disease

Venkatesh, a rising sophomore, grew up just around the corner from the Vestal campus. She was already aware of the opportunities available in Binghamton, which made it her first choice of college.

The sciences – especially biology – first piqued his interest in college. In addition to expanding the frontiers of knowledge, research helps create real change in society – as well as personal development, due to the emphasis on collaboration and teamwork, he said. she declared. The Beckman Scholars program proved to be the ideal solution.

“This is an opportunity for me to continue to grow as an individual while fueling my fascination with STEM,” she said. “I like being able to get a lot of hands-on research experience, because it’s something I see myself pursuing for the long term.”

Venkatesh’s mentor in the Beckman Scholars program is psychology professor Christopher Bishop, director of the undergraduate program in Integrative Neuroscience. She works 9 to 5 in her lab, which focuses on Parkinson’s disease. A better understanding of the disease could lead to better treatments, Venkatesh said.

“As part of my study, I am currently testing different gait variables through models of Parkinsonian rodents – essentially looking to compare and contrast differences in gait patterns with rats with Parkinsonism,” she explained. “Many people with Parkinson’s disease have difficulty walking, balancing and coordinating their muscles, so by studying these symptoms in rats, we can better understand the disease and create treatments that can help reduce these effects. .”

While in Binghamton, Venkatesh plans to continue his work on Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders. In the long term, however, she plans to focus on epidemiology or infectious diseases, whether as a doctor or a researcher, although the future is open.

Some of her peers may not realize the research opportunities available at Binghamton, including the Beckman Fellowship, she said. Although research involves a commitment of time, the rewards are considerable.

“It’s been really rewarding to be part of a like-minded group of students working to create solutions to public health issues,” she said. “Going forward, I’m excited to continue my research through the Beckman Scholars Program, and by sharing my experience, I truly hope to encourage students to explore and participate in Binghamton’s research and STEM opportunities.”

A new tool to solve crimes

Rodriguez, of Hopewell Junction, NY, is the first in her family to pursue higher education, earning an associate’s degree in engineering science at Dutchess Community College before coming to Binghamton last fall.

As part of the inaugural cohort of the Watson College Scholars program – which helps economically disadvantaged undergraduates by prioritizing applicants from historically underrepresented backgrounds – she is receiving additional support both academically and professionally.

For his Beckman Scholars project, Rodriguez is working with Associate Professor Guy German of the Department of Biomedical Engineering as a mentor. She is continuing her research that she began in German’s lab this spring, which analyzes skin patterns on human hands and arms for potential forensic applications.

By taking photos over a period of months, the project tracks the extent of the changes that occur on the backs of our hands and wrists as well as the middle of our forearms. If someone leaves fingerprints from these places at a crime scene, can prosecutors link the perpetrators to their victims?

“I take these images and put them into a code that I helped create, and it analyzes the similarities between these regions,” she said. “We track changes over time to see how long we can use a fingerprint to identify someone. It’s kind of like fingerprints, but we don’t always have fingerprints available, so what if someone leaves an imprint of the back of their hand, like they’re bumped into something? If we can identify anyone with this that would be helpful.

Rodriguez said she was challenging herself by learning to program the pattern recognition software, which she had never done before.

“Our first hurdle is: how accurate is this code? Can he actually follow these similarities and recognize that it’s the same thing, just a little out of place? ” she says. “We’ve made progress with that – we’re still working on fine-tuning it, but it looks optimistic so far.”

The Beckman Scholars program requires 40 hours of research per week during the summer and 10 hours per week during the spring and fall semesters, but Rodriguez doesn’t think she’ll have a problem exceeding those goals.

“I’ll probably put in a lot more than that,” she laughed. “I’m not the type to score minutes. Time flies when you’re having fun!

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