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SPUR’s moment

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Fall/Winter 2013 issue (pdf)

Thirty years of undergraduate research training

For 30 years, the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) has opened its doors to undergraduate students willing to challenge themselves to a rigorous scientific experience in a working biomedical research laboratory. Through the Summer Program for Undergraduate Research (SPUR), students can more accurately gauge their interest in scientific careers while benefitting from the opportunity to work with highly productive scholars and mentors on the MCW faculty.

Dr. John Auchampach mentored SPUR student Samantha Barbour in his Pharmacology and Toxicology lab this summer.
Dr. John Auchampach mentored SPUR student Samantha Barbour in his Pharmacology and Toxicology lab this summer.

John A. Auchampach, PhD ’92, Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology, mentored a SPUR student during his very first year on the faculty. His belief in the program has led to his continued involvement. Samantha Barbour, a student at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, joined his lab this summer.

“I think it’s important to get students started on this path early and expose them to opportunities for careers they could have in the future,” Dr. Auchampach said. “And I enjoy working with budding young scientists who bring additional enthusiasm to the lab in the summer.”

Barbour contributed to a collaborative, National Institutes of Health-funded project designed to improve understanding of how a general class of drugs called allosteric modulators work on G protein-coupled receptors. Many drugs interact with this large family of receptors, and Dr.

Auchampach’s research could lead to development of more targeted therapies for a number of different diseases.

During her SPUR experience, Barbour conducted experiments that helped confirm some of the mechanisms behind how some members of this class of drugs work. She explored dose response relationships and receptor binding concepts.

“I have definitely gained an understanding of many basic pharmacological principles that I would not have been exposed to otherwise,” she said. “I also get to see how a specific experiment translates to conclusions about how a drug might be acting at the molecular level.”

In addition to laboratory work, SPUR students benefit from Wednesday lunch and learn sessions, a Friday morning lecture series as well as peer engagement activities that provide opportunities for students to learn from one another’s experiences. In addition, all SPUR students are required to formally present their summer project to their peers at the conclusion of the program, another skill worthy of mastery by any scientist.
A Pewaukee native, Barbour was glad to meet faculty and learn about graduate studies at MCW.

“It’s given me a lot to think about and opened my mind to more possibilities,” she said. “It has definitely been positive. There are so many good options in science.”

Leaving participants with a strong impression of MCW and a heightened awareness of scholarly biomedical research is part of SPUR’s value. The program serves as a compelling recruitment tool for graduate school and for other future scholars in medicine. SPUR has served nearly 1,000 undergraduates over the last 30 years. The vast majority of students have gone on to pursue higher education related to basic or clinical sciences/medicine.

SPUR is in part sustained by external funding, including private philanthropy and government grants. Dr. Auchampach recently contributed to a successful grant application to the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics led by John D. Imig, PhD, Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology. Through a competitive process, they earned funding for three undergraduate stipends for the next three summers.

“The purpose is to expose students to research in pharmacology, a field they don’t get exposed to in undergraduate school,” Dr. Auchampach said. “What made us competitive is we had an established program with SPUR, and we could outline that we had all of the necessary components in place to provide a quality training experience for interested undergraduate students.”

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