IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy may not mean much to most of us, but for scientists like Jerry Honts, it's exciting stuff.
Those are some of the high-caliber, high-dollar tools that Honts, an associate professor of cell and molecular biology at Drake University, has access to this summer during a unique program hosted by the University of Iowa's Carver College of Medicine.
Even more exciting than the cutting-edge equipment, he says, is the new professional relationships he's forged through the FUTURE in Biomedicine Program, which connects faculty and students from Iowa's small colleges with UI researchers and resources.
"The thing that happens when you're at a private university with a smaller department is you're the expert in your area," Honts said. "You don't often have a lot of other fellow experts to talk shop with. It's only here that I can do that."
UI's College of Medicine is hosting eight faculty members, along with seven of their students, from small colleges and universities around the state for this year's FUTURE program - an acronym standing for Fostering Undergraduate Talent, Uniting Research and Education.
The program, which is in its sixth year, is an outreach initiative of the College of Medicine that gives the visiting professors and undergraduates access to UI's state-of-the-art instruments, research facilities and faculty expertise during the summer months. The university provides the first-time fellows lodging and a stipend, and dorm housing for the students, while placing them in laboratories alongside UI researchers.
The idea, said Madeline Shea, a professor of biochemistry at UI and the director of the FUTURE program, is to create new ties between university scientists and their peers at smaller Iowa institutions, which in turn fosters new collaborations in the laboratory and enhances instruction in the classroom.
"It's an effort to develop a statewide network of scientist-educators," said Shea, who this summer is partnering with Honts, a senior fellow in the FUTURE program, in her laboratory inside the Bowen Science Building.
Faculty and students from Coe, Drake, Hawkeye Community College, Loras, Mount Mercy and Wartburg are currently embedded in UI chemistry, physics and biology labs. In its six summers, the program has hosted 25 professors from 17 primarily undergraduate institutions.
Elsewhere inside the Bowen Science Building, Adam Moser, an assistant professor at Loras College, and two of his students have been working alongside UI biochemistry professor Adrian Elcock in his computer lab. The group is conducting computational studies of macromolecular interactions, or as Moser explains it, "computer simulations of very large biological systems, like a cell."
Moser, who is a first-time FUTURE fellow, said he applied to the program because he was interested in learning how Elcock's computer simulations could be used in his own research back at Loras.
"At a small school, you don't have as many resources, and it's not as much of a research environment as it is here," Moser said. "So being able to come here for my research is really motivating and energizing. The other thing I love is you get to bring a student, and I talked them into allowing me to bring two students."
At Loras, for example, Moser said he received grant money to purchase one 64-core computer server for research, which has proven to be an important tool. But in Elcock's lab, the servers are each 20 times the size of Moser's, and there are four of them here.
"If we had been working at Loras with the resources I have access to, it would have taken many years to do what we've done here in six weeks," Moser said. "It's orders of magnitude."
Elcock says the partnership is a mutually beneficial one between the visiting faculty and hosts, who learn from each other.
"It's definitely a two-way street here, because while we were working on these methods here previously, Adam and have students have taken it in a new direction and have done work we haven't done," Elcock said. "It's not just us showing Adam stuff; he's bringing expertise to our lab."
That's a sentiment echoed in the lab of Andy Frank, a UI assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology. Frank is teaming with Wartburg College's Stephanie Toering Peters, an associate professor of biology, and her student, junior Jessa Bidwell.
"It's wonderful to have an experienced and trained scientist in the lab for the summer, and she also gets to bring one of her students to help with the research," Frank said. "With them in the lab over the summer, they're able to explore experimental ideas myself and my personnel don't necessarily have the time to do during the year, so they can expand our research program in further directions."
Peters was a fellow in the program three years ago, and returned this summer to continue the research she began in 2009. The project, she explained, entails looking at the effects of a particular gene on the development of the neuromuscular junction. At UI, she has access to a confocal microscope for the research, which is not available at Wartburg.
Peters, who moved her family to Iowa City for the summer to take part in the program again, said it also offers the students a chance to get a feel for post-graduate opportunities.
"For students from somewhere like Wartburg, to be able to come here and see what a large research institution looks like, and being able to get into a lab and see what a grad student does, is a great opportunity," Peters said.
Bidwell, who is studying neuroscience and Spanish at Wartburg, has been spending much of her summer hunkered down over a microscope examining fruit flies.
"This is the first time I've ever used a big-name microscope before; it's the first time I've heard of a lot of the things I'm working on," she said.
UI spends between $75,000 and $100,000 a year to put on the FUTURE program, which is funded largely through the College of Medicine, but also receives funding through the Office of the Provost. The partnering colleges provide funding for student stipends, as well.
Shea said that, over the years, the program's partnerships have generated seven scientific articles, many presentations at academic conferences and a number of ongoing projects in which faculty from across the state collaborate year round.
The FUTURE program has also helped attract many of the student participants back to UI after graduation, Shea said.
"We know that there are students here in our graduate programs and our clinical programs that learned about the University of Iowa through their association with the FUTURE program itself, by coming with a faculty member or being advised by a faculty member who participated in the program," Shea said. "So we know that bringing talent to the University of Iowa is a wonderful outcome."
Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, http://www.press-citizen.com/