By: Charlene N. Rivera-Bonet, Waisman Science Writer
Sabrina Huang, a rising senior in the Waisman lab of Xinyu Zhao, PhD, was awarded inaugural support from the endowed Morris H. Aprison Scholar Fund for Undergraduate Research. Xinyu Zhao, PhD, is a professor in the department of neuroscience, Jenni & Kyle Professor of Neurodevelopmental Diseases, and a Waisman investigator. Zhao’s lab is focused on understanding gene regulation and signaling pathways associated with brain development and identifying drug targets that can be used as treatments or interventions for conditions such as autism.
The purpose of the Aprison Scholar Fund is to support one undergraduate student’s summer research training each year. The educational focus is on developing interdisciplinary skills necessary to creatively design and implement scientific experiments. In Zhao’s lab, Huang, a neurobiology major, studies genetic mutations related to autism symptoms and potential drug therapies.
The fellowship is named after the late Morris H. Aprison, PhD, a UW-Madison alumnus and distinguished neurochemist. Morris Aprison obtained his bachelor’s degree in chemistry, master’s degree in physics, and doctorate in biochemistry at UW-Madison. He then worked as a professor for 37 years in the departments of psychiatry and biochemistry at Indiana University’s School of Medicine in Indianapolis. Morris Aprison’s productive research programs resulted in more than 335 publications and his robust research portfolio included the identification and neurochemical characterization of the amino acid glycine as a functioning inhibitory neurotransmitter in spinal cords of animals. Before passing in 2007, Morris Aprison, a longtime UW-Madison donor, established a fund to support neurochemistry research at his alma mater. One of his sons, Barry Aprison, PhD, designated a purpose for the fund consistent with his father’s wishes.
Barry Aprison, who has extensive experience in science communication and in developing research training programs, combined his expertise with his father’s wish to support neurochemistry research and training at the UW. “I know how important it is for undergraduates to have some kind of outstanding research experience if they want to move on to a PhD training program. This inspired me to think about a framework that would make sense for my dad’s neurochemistry idea,” Barry Aprison says. After reading published research papers and reviewing lab website overviews he felt the work and training being done in Zhao’s lab was a perfect fit for his father’s fund and support.
Starting with Huang, each summer the fellowship will fund one undergraduate student in Zhao’s lab while they work on a research project related to behavior regulation by neurochemical mechanisms and processes in the brain. Huang is being introduced to important scientific questions, tools, techniques, core facilities, and applications. At the end of the eight-week summer experience, Huang will present her research in the annual UW Undergraduate Research Symposium in the spring semester to students, faculty and staff in the department of neuroscience.
Huang’s research project, which she has been working on for the past two years, focuses on a specific genetic mutation related to severe symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The genetic sample was taken from a Waisman Center clinic patient with ASD. Using iPS cells derived from the patient, Huang, under the guidance of postdoctoral fellow Yu (Kristy) Guo, is investigating the patient’s genome and downstream impacts of this genetic mutation in relation to the patient’s symptoms. Huang is also contributing to research on effects of a drug treatment for the autism symptoms of this specific genetic mutation. Preliminary results are promising. “That drug study was actually really cool because it shows there is some possible treatment to this genomic mutation,” Huang says.
Zhao, whose lab hosts about 15 undergraduates, believes that undergraduate research is important for students to have an opportunity to learn how experiments are designed, scientific questions are answered, and to properly draw conclusions from data. The challenge is that “there is very limited funding for students and many of the students need to actually make money in the summer. So, having undergraduate research scholarships is really important,” Zhao says. Fellowships like this one allow students to focus on learning and dedicate their time to their lab work rather than having to work somewhere else to cover expenses. “We deeply appreciate the Aprison’s generosity and vision in helping undergraduate students gain experience in biomedical research. This fellowship makes such a difference for my lab and will have a profound impact on the future of biomedical research and discovery,” Zhao says.
Barry Aprison hopes the Morris H. Aprison Scholar Fund for Undergraduate Research results in trainees gaining expertise, creativity, and technical skills necessary to become successful scientists. Alumni will have learned how to plan, design, and implement neurochemical research that may lead to interventions and treatments.
Huang, who also organizes the summer undergraduates in Zhao’s lab, aspires to go to medical school next year. “I think this [fellowship] definitely helps show the influence research has on my life and how I want to continue research throughout my medical career. I’m glad I was given this opportunity,” Huang says.
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