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Systems Biology lab

Opportunities bloom: Student research within our Academy of Integrated Science is growing

Camille Schrier, who graduated with degrees in Systems Biology and Biochemistry, can talk about the circadian clock.

She can talk about the “simple mathematical” computer model she constructed to help her research mentor evaluate one particular core gene critical to regulating circadian rhythm.

She can explain that the hands-on teaching methods embraced in the Academy of Integrated Science, part of the College of Science, led to an active learning role that she never imagined when she en­tered Virginia Tech.

“I’ve had the opportunity to see how things evolve from lab work into important discoveries,” Schrier said this spring, standing in a lab full of tubes, bottles, and high-tech DNA sensor equipment, inside Steger Hall. “I’m not sure I would have pursued that, without that requirement, without that push.”

One thing Schrier couldn’t explain was much about the people who funded her work, whose contributions to Virginia Tech helped shape the Academy of Integrated Science. In fact, she finished her Virginia Tech education on two Lu­ther and Alice Hamlett Scholarships. At a scholarship ceremony in November 2017, she wondered about the Hamletts.

Luther Hamlett earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from Virginia Tech in 1945. His wife Alice passed away in 2009, and Luther passed away in 2016. The Hamletts’ determination was to give back to the College of Science in ways that would enable research and collaboration between faculty and students. 

Luther and Alice Hamlett, in undated photo
Luther and Alice Hamlett in an undated photo. Image courtesy of family.

If you talk to Schrier or look at what the Academy of Integrated Science has done, mission accomplished.

“The innovative AIS programs have a strong emphasis on undergraduate re­search,” said Michel Pleimling, director of the Academy of Integrated Science and a professor in the Department of Physics.

“Every Nanoscience and Systems Biology major is required to do research as part of their degree requirements. Thanks to the Hamlett gift, the Academy is in the fortunate position to financially sup­port faculty-student teams that propose innovative and cutting-edge research projects.”

Shihoko Kojima, an assistant professor in the Depart­ment of Biological Sciences and an affiliate member of the Systems Biology program, leads the research that Camille is involved in.

“Being involved as directly as she is in the work,” Koji­ma said, “it teaches you a lot about the patience you have to have in doing research. It also teaches you the value of data.”

The Academy of Integrated Science carries a for­ward-looking approach to undergraduate education. Though the three degrees offered – Computational Modeling and Data Analytics, Systems Biology and Nanoscience – may sound like post-graduate courses, students step into these transdisciplinary, experiential programs on day one of their first year.

Lara Anderson and F. Marc Michel
Lara Anderson and F. Marc Michel

 Faculty and researchers in many of the foundation­al departments of the College of Science – Chemistry, Biology, Geosciences, Mathematics, Physics, Statistics – serve dual roles as instructors at the Academy. It’s essentially a learning lab, built from the disciplinary strengths already found in the eight core departments of the College of Science, aimed at developing students tailored to address issues critical to society.

The Hamletts extended their support throughout the Academy, to programs both broad and deep. The scholarships that Schrier received were endowed, and in just one year they help provide scholarships to more than two dozen students. As this magazine was going to press, Pleimling and his team with­in the Academy just held their April dinner where students were awarded scholarships.

Based on the Hamlett's dedication to faculty research, the Luther and Alice Hamlett Junior Faculty Fellowships in the College of Science were launched posthumously to bolster the work of as­sistant and associate professors.

Lara Anderson, assistant professor in Physics, and F. Marc Michel, assistant professor of Geosciences, were named recipients of those fellowships. Ander­son has already become known as an outstanding teacher, including a Favor­ite Faculty award from Virginia Tech’s Division of Student Affairs. She’s won numerous National Science Founda­tion awards for her research on string theory and funneled that knowledge to undergraduates by mentoring them in four different research projects.

Michel serves in the Nanoscience program in the Academy of Integrated Science and recently received a Nation­al Science Foundation CAREER Award for research into how the smallest min­erals crystallize from their originating solution. Like Anderson, he brings that knowledge directly to undergraduates, having guided 16 students on research projects in five years at Virginia Tech. 

Students at AIS event

Students at AIS event
Several dozen students in the Academy of Integrated Science were honored at an April 2018 dinner at the Inn at Virginia Tech

All of which goes back to one couple’s contribution.

“Dr. Hamlett and his wife, Alice, had a love of learning – and of Virginia Tech – that was evident to everyone who knew them,” said Sally C. Morton, dean of the College of Science. “I think they’d be proud to know the extent to which their gener­osity has inspired tomorrow’s scientists and will lead to new discoveries.”

Back in Steger Hall, in the lab at the Biocomplexity In­stitute, Kojima and Schrier talk about their research into a gene involved in circadian rhythms, and its ties to sleep patterns, and the health problems that can ensue when a person’s “clock” is off the mark.

“We may be close to finding out the importance of the 11th gene in regulating that clock,” Kojima said.

She will carry on that work without Schrier, who never envisioned her path in research in the lab when she entered Virginia Tech as a first-year student, but she’s been inspired by the work.

As for Schrier, she is moving on to Virginia Common­wealth University, where she’ll pursue a doctor of pharma­cy degree. And more students will follow in her place with the Academy of Integrated Science, carrying out research alongside faculty that will enrich not only their own lives, academically, but those whose health will see brighter days, all thanks to the gifts of one proud Hokie couple.