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Undergraduate research leads to national travel awards

Jamie Weimer

Two NKU undergraduate students, Kelsey Klinefelter and Jamie Weimer, will join scientists from across the globe at the annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12-17 in New Orleans.

Jamie Weimer

“This is one of NKU’s great strengths—we train scientists starting with our very first introductory courses…”

By Kelsey Bungenstock
Marketing + Communications intern

It’s not often that undergraduate students have the opportunity to conduct and present scientific research on the national stage. But talented undergraduates from Northern Kentucky University are gaining that reputation—especially in the field of toxicology, where two current NKU students are studying pervasive chemical compounds in the hopes of understanding the threats they may pose to the nation’s health.

Kelsey Klinefelter, a junior biological sciences major, and Jamie Weimer, a junior pre-vet biology and Spanish double major, have received national travel awards to attend the Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting from March 12–17 in New Orleans this year. Weimer received the prestigious Pfizer Undergraduate Research Award, and Klinefelter received an SOT Undergraduate Diversity Travel Award. This is the third time NKU students have received a Pfizer Award for their research.

Their research mentor, Dr. Chris Curran, encouraged the two to apply. When NKU hosted the Ohio Valley Society of Toxicology meeting last November, it was the first time the regional chapter meeting was held at a predominantly undergraduate institution. Curran calls NKU’s invitation to host the meeting a “coup,” and says it was made possible by the university’s growing stature in the field of toxicology.

“NKU students are doing graduate-level research before even earning a bachelor’s degree,” Curran said. “This is one of NKU’s great strengths—we train scientists starting with our very first introductory courses. Undergraduate research provides hands-on training and bench skills that make our students incredibly marketable and better prepared for graduate and professional school.”

Klinefelter applied for the Undergraduate Diversity Travel Award in order to go to the Society of Toxicology annual meeting, where she’ll learn about the latest developments and scientific breakthroughs in the field of toxicology.

The awards provide travel and lodging for the national meeting of the Society of Toxicology and will allow Weimer and Klinefelter to stay for the duration of the nearly week-long meeting. Weimer says that the meeting will be a great opportunity to present their research and meet scientists and students from around the country with different research interests in toxicology.

“I study an amino acid called taurine, which is found in very high concentrations in energy drinks,” Weimer said. “Little is known about the effects of taurine in adolescents and teenagers, but this is the group with the highest rate of energy drink consumption.”

The research Weimer and her team conducted found potential deficits in learning and memory in mice after long-term consumption of a high level of taurine in energy drinks.

Klinefelter’s research relates to an experience she had in one of Dr. Curran’s labs, where she looked at how polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) affect the development of children when they’re exposed to this toxicant during gestation and lactation. Previously in the lab, they found that mice exposed to PCBs had learning, memory, and motor deficits compared to their control counterpart.

“My research is to look at the gene expression of these animals in order to figure out the underlying cause of the dysfunction,” Klinefelter said. “We use a technique called real-time quantitative PCR (qPCR), which allows us to look at the expression levels of different genes found in the cerebellum and liver of the mice.”

To Weimer, the award validates the idea that research could be a potential career path. In addition, it also provides her with the opportunity to network directly with a scientist mentor for the duration of the meeting.

“It is important to give undergraduates support and resources to continue their careers and further their field of research, whether toxicology or any other scientific field,” Weimer said.

“My hope is that current and future students will become more interested in research and the opportunities available to them,” adds Klinefelter. “Not only to conduct undergraduate research, but also to present their work at conferences and share their results with the scientific community.”