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Grace Jairo came to Lakeland College from Kenya with plans to become a medical doctor, but her experience in the Lakeland Undergraduate Research Experiences (LURE) program may end up changing her career path.
Jairo, a junior majoring in biochemistry, has spent the last two summers with fellow student May Szetu researching amyloid beta peptides, a protein linked to the cause of some diseases.
Since 2004, LURE has been providing upper-level biology, biochemistry, and chemistry majors with a 10-week paid internship to design, conduct and analyze their own scientific research. Students are under the guidance of a faculty member, and they present their findings at the Marquette University Undergraduate Research Symposium.
Jeff Schwehm, Lakeland's biochemistry professor, said students like Jairo are able to study protein aggregation, a molecular process thought to be responsible for many degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's Disease, because of Lakeland's Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer. This device, a unique research tool for a school the size of Lakeland, lets researchers identify the types of chemical bonds in molecules by producing an infrared absorption spectrum that is like a molecular fingerprint.
"This is a huge area of research," Schwehm said. "We don't completely understand protein aggregation, and we're trying to find out why these processes occur at a molecular level and if there is a way to prevent them. They have the advantage of conducting this research at a small school where they're getting trained by people with a doctorate, not graduate students."
The time Jairo has spent in the Chase Science Center labs has convinced her that scientific research is her calling. "I'm starting to love research much more," Jairo said. "When I do research, I have so many questions that I want to answer. I've learned a lot from my work, things I would not have learned if I had just sat in class.
"I would not consider science as a career if I hadn't gotten the LURE research experience. I spend 60 hours a week in the lab by myself. I meet my advisor (Schwehm) every day and update him on my progress. If I'm stuck, he helps me figure it out. But most of the time, you have to figure it out. That's how real life works."
Jairo attends Lakeland through the Zawadi Africa Educational Fund. Created in 2002 by Coca-Cola executive Susan Mboya, the fund established 25 full-time scholarships for academically gifted girls from Africa to pursue higher education in the United States.
Twice, Jairo has presented her research at the National Undergraduate Research Symposium at Illinois' Argonne National Laboratory, one of the U.S. Department of Energy's oldest and largest national laboratories for science and engineering research. Through these events, she has connected with several science graduate students from Lakeland and other colleges who've become role models. Schwehm said the research experience is a critical prerequisite to making students' grad school applications attractive.
Jairo loves learning from the work of others and knowing that people are also learning from her research. "My first summer in LURE, I felt like I didn't know anything until I started asking questions," she said. "The more you ask questions, the more you want to research. The success I have enjoyed in my research has made me feel more confident."