This summer, Virginia Bioinformatics Institute hosted Calvin Stephens of Winchester, Va., a junior majoring in biological sciences in the College of Science as part of Fralin Life Science Institute’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). Stephens aided David Mittelman, associate professor in biological sciences, in his lab to test a new form of genomic medicine.

Researchers at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and other institutions are trying to find genome mutations that influence normal traits as well as disease. In the future, researchers will seek to act on the findings of harmful mutations by designing therapies to repair or counteract them. This fellowship explored an innovative approach to repairing disease-causing DNA repeats, sequences in the genome that consist of repeated DNA bases. 

For example, excessively long repetitions of CAG repeats are the cause for several genetic neurological disorders including Huntington’s disease, myotonic dystrophy, and others. Stephens and the Mittelman lab tested a new therapeutic strategy that edits long CAG repeats so that they become smaller and less harmful.

Mittelman said, "Calvin helped generate some of the preliminary data for this project and we are thrilled that he was able to continue his research through the summer with the support of this fellowship from Fralin."

Stephens chose Virginia Tech based on his deep interest in genetics and biological research. Realizing the importance of such research and how much he wanted to be part of it, Stephens sought out Mittelman’s lab as the perfect match for his interests. 

Noted Stephens, "It’s hard to look forward into the future and know exactly something you want to do, but because of everything that is being studied and learned right now in this field, I think the possibilities are endless."

Those endless possibilities are what drove Stephens to seek out SURF as a means to continue the research he’s begun in Mittelman’s lab. Since 2008, Fralin’s SURF program has connected motivated students with faculty mentors in a 10-week intensive summer fellowship. Students participate in weekly research and professional development seminars, social events, and a final symposium during which students present their research.

'The goal of the SURF program is to acquaint students with what it is like to be a research scientist. Many fellows have come away not only with a better appreciation for the career field, but also with one or more publications in peer reviewed journals," said Dennis Dean, director of life sciences.

The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute seeks undergraduate and graduate students from across campus to help advance transdisciplinary research. Last year, undergraduate Andy Martin from the College of Engineering won a summer research fellowship to develop improved bioinformatics methods for detecting DNA repeat mutations using whole genome sequencing. Martin’s research has contributed so far to two scientific manuscripts, one of which was recently published in Nature.



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