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Getting hands-on experience in a research lab can be a challenging feat for many undergraduate students. In-depth lab work and specialized research is often geared towards graduate students pursuing advanced degrees. Assistant Professor Leena Bharath, however, has always sought to advance undergraduate research opportunities.
In spring 2021, Bharath received a grant for $434,000 specifically to train undergraduate students and support her research project, “Mitochondrial Aging Promotes Inflammation.”
“The coolest thing about this grant is the student training,” Bharath said. “I have always wanted to have a lab where I can train undergraduate students. It comes from my postdoctoral experience. My advisor had a ton of undergraduates in his lab, and it was a great experience working with them.”
Past Merrimack undergraduate students have come in and out of Bharath’s inflammation lab, which explores how inflammation relates to aging and aging-related changes in the body. Until now, this work has been funded through the Anthony J. Sakowich Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities. SCURCA grants have enabled students to live on campus and work in the lab for six to eight weeks during the summer months.
During the academic year, many students continued in Bharath’s lab as volunteers or through directive studies for course credit. This new stream of funding, an NIH R15 grant, will allow even more students to participate, cover travel costs to conferences and offer financial support during the academic year.
“The R15 grant is very special because it is specifically for training undergraduate students,” Bharath said. “The overarching goal of the grant is to encourage smaller colleges like ours to get access to more NIH funding and have greater opportunities to train students at the undergraduate level.”
Students in Bharath’s lab conduct research and experiments as early as their freshman year. Some Merrimack students stay in her lab all four years of their undergraduate degrees. With the additional NIH funding, students will be able to get paid for their work year-round.
“Even at larger universities it’s difficult for undergraduate students to get this level of experience,” Bharath said. “Undergraduates in the lab are usually doing the background work. The students in my lab actually do the research.”
In addition to working in the lab, students also participate in preparing their findings for publication. Bharath’s lab currently has two published manuscripts and more are currently under review. The lab also attends annual conferences in Boston at Tufts University and will attend the American Aging Association conference in person later this summer.
“The idea of the lab has always been to give students a sense of what it’s like to not only start in a lab and do the research, but also how to disseminate their findings through publication,” Bharath said. “I’ve had great support from Merrimack in setting up a lab like this. Now, having the funding to grow is the most exciting thing for me.”