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Roxana Hickey is very nonchalant when discussing her research. Yet, she frequently receives mixed reactions when people learn what it is she studies. Two words – vaginal microbiota – are enough to end a conversation or start a dialogue from curiosity.
No matter the length of the conversations, Hickey is involved in groundbreaking research that relates to women's health. And two other words – undergraduate research – are giving her a step up on her peers as she seeks a future in genetics or cancer research.
Hickey, a junior in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry from Idaho Falls, is studying microbial composition of vaginal secretions and how the composition of the microorganisms might change during menses. Yet, it's the new methodology – isolating DNA from clinical samples instead of an older culture-dependent approach – and seeing its success that continues to stimulate her desire to continue in medical research.
"It’s exciting to be involved in this research because we’re constantly finding evidence that evolves our understanding of the dynamics of vaginal microbial ecology," says Hickey. "And because this is relevant to me and women worldwide, I feel empowered that I’m contributing to women’s health in general."
Hickey began conducting undergraduate research with Larry Forney, professor of biological sciences, during her freshman year. Her initial research project was a yeast infection study, which investigated the possible correlations between vaginal bacteria and the occurrence of vaginal yeast infections. "Data collection was finished by the time I joined the project, so that semester I learned basic microbiological and genetics techniques while following my mentor, Dr. Xia Zhou, through the data analysis portion of the study," Hickey says.
"I'm learning techniques and procedures that can be used in future research," she says. "I go more in-depth in the lab than in any undergraduate course and use some sophisticated instruments."
This summer, as an Idaho Institutional Development Award (IDeA) Network for Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) program scholar, Hickey is analyzing DNA from vaginal swabs to determine whether the vaginal microbial community changes during menses. The results may lead to enhancements in hygiene products for women's menstrual cycles.
Hickey is eyeing a future in clinical research, with a focus on genetics and cancer research. "I like being the first person to see results. It's exciting, since experiments have more failures than successes," she says.
"Roxana is a talented, bright young woman who is motivated to work on issues that affect 3 billion people on the planet," says Forney, who also chairs the university's Department of Biological Sciences. “Her involvement in undergraduate research places her at the forefront of discovery and provides her an opportunity to learn in ways that are not possible in any other way."