The look of amazement is readily apparent when scientists realize that coauthored papers and patents are the result of undergraduate research—not that of doctoral candidates or seasoned scientists.
The laboratory of Dr. Kim O’Neill is fertile ground for BYU undergraduate research. Here, O’Neill and a small group of students crank out new cancer-related research. “In our laboratory we focus on three areas,” said O’Neill, professor of microbiology and molecular biology, “prevention through education, enhancement of the body’s own protective systems, and early detection of disease.” O’Neill believes good lifestyle habits such as not smoking, exercising frequently, and eating a balanced diet can prevent many cancers. “There is evidence that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables lowers the risk of many cancers and other ‘lifestyle diseases,’” he said. “We investigate the science behind this evidence to help explain, for example, why fruits and vegetables are so beneficial.”
O’Neill’s students are investigating methods to enhance the body’s defense systems and provide early cancer detection by routine blood analysis. “Early detection often leads to a better prognosis for the patient,” said O’Neill. “We’ve patented a simple blood test that may help in early diagnosis and thus a better prognosis.”
Since BYU is not a major research university, O’Neill is often asked, “How important are undergraduate students to this research?” His answer issimple. “They are my research! I only have one or two graduate students,” he says, “so most of our research is conducted by undergraduates. But we have a high caliber of students here, and it’s a privilege to have them in my lab.”
O’Neill is highly focused on mentoring students, but only if they are highly motivated themselves. “We conduct an intense, sixweek preparatory course,” he said. “On most days it starts at six in the morning. Each week, students must select and review an existing research paper and present it as if it were their own research. This requires a lot of work. Those who are serious complete the course. If they miss one day, they have to start over. Out of 50 students that start, about 20 finish. I don’t select the successful students—they select themselves.”
One of those self-selected students is Rachelle Olsen. “When I joined the lab, I had no prior research experience,” said Olsen. “I was taught lab techniques by students who had been working there for a couple of years. After a year, I began teaching these same techniques to a new group of students. It was a great learning experience!”
When students start in the lab, they are immersed in research and mentored by seasoned seniors and O’Neill. Their ultimate goal is to present their research at national and international conferences and publish peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals. They know this is a singular advantage to them, since very few undergraduates are selected for such presentations.
Pathway to Harvard
Olsen’s research focused on the physiological processes of metastasis and angiogenesis in cancer patients as part of her ORCA-sponsored project. Metastasis is the detachment of cells from a primary tumor which relocate to other parts of the body to form secondary tumors. In angiogenesis, a primary tumor induces the growth of new blood vessels that provide the tumor with nutrients required for growth. Both mechanisms are a major cause of death. Olsen worked with chick embryos to learn how to prevent both processes.
Olsen credited her BYU research for gaining internships and subsequent graduate school acceptance at two top cancer research centers—UCLA and Harvard. “BYU has a unique environment,” she said. “It simulates a graduate school environment by encouraging undergraduate research—something that’s difficult to find at other undergraduate institutions.”
“Graduate schools look for people with prior experience,” said Olsen. She speaks with some authority. She is now enrolled in an intense, sixyear doctoral program at Harvard.