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Roxana Hickey

Matt Racine and Roxana Hickey

Undergraduate Research Key to Shaping Vandal Futures
By Ken Kingery
At the University of Idaho, graduate students and faculty don’t monopolize the fun and excitement of research and discovery. In fact, undergraduates are encouraged to get involved in lab work as early as freshman year.

Two prime examples of how research influences undergraduate education at Idaho are Roxana Hickey and Matt Racine, a junior in molecular biology and a senior in biology, respectively. Both have been learning hands-on lab techniques from graduate students and faculty for nearly two years; Hickey and Racine are now looking to graduate school.

“The research has definitely shaped what I’m doing with my life now and in the future,” says Racine, who investigated the effects of exercise training on performance and gene expression in zebra fish. “I never really had graduate school in mind, but now I’m going straight into a Ph.D. program.”

Racine’s research in the lab of Barrie Robison, professor of biological sciences, involved placing wild and domesticated zebra fish in water tubes. Some fish experienced a current flowing through the tube, increasing in speed each week, while others merely swam in still waters. Racine then compared the athletic performance, the muscle tissue and the expression of two specific genes.

The research showed the training had a significant effect on the wild fish, but not the domesticated fish. The experiment also showed a greater gene expression of succinate dehydrogenase, a gene commonly associated with oxidative capacity and muscle performance.

“It’s really given me an insight into the academic world,” says Racine, who wants to continue to study athletic performance in wild versus domesticated animals. “And being a cross-country and track runner, I know what those zebra fish were feeling when I made them swim for 3 three hours.”

While Racine studied zebra fish, Hickey studied even smaller organisms – bacteria.

Roxana Hickey began working in the lab of Larry Forney, professor of biological sciences, in the second semester of her freshman year, before she had taken a single lab class. A few months later, she could easily culture bacteria, isolate and amplify DNA and sequence bacteria’s genetic material.

“A lot of the techniques I’ve learned I can take with me after I graduate,” said Hickey, who is also beginning to look into graduate programs. “They’re not just applicable to microbiology.”

After learning the basic techniques, Hickey dove straight into a clinical trial for Procter and Gamble dealing with vaginal microbial communities. These natural communities of bacteria are considered essential to female reproductive health, and Hickey studied whether or not certain feminine hygiene products altered the composition of microbial communities.

The data analysis is still in progress, but Hickey’s results have shown that the microbial communities appear to be stable over a period of time, and usually return to normal between menstrual periods.

“When I started the research, I had declared molecular biology as my major, but I wasn’t really sure. I hadn’t even taken any biology classes at that point,” said Hickey. “But this has definitely given me an idea of what research is like and what other fields are out there. I’m pretty sure I’m going to go for a Ph.D. after graduation. I may pursue other fields of study, but I’m definitely sticking to biomedical research.”