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Lab Research Brings Science to Life

Published: October 28, 2014
Max Ganz ’15, who is applying to medical schools, said the experiential aspect of research really clarified what he was learning in the classroom.
Max Ganz ’15, who is applying to medical schools, said the experiential aspect of research really clarified what he was learning in the classroom.
Bayleigh Benner ’14 received best undergraduate poster presentation at the annual meeting of the American Society of Microbiology, Southeastern Branch, this September.
Bayleigh Benner ’14 received best undergraduate poster presentation at the annual meeting of the American Society of Microbiology, Southeastern Branch, this September.
Ganz, one of two students researching with Assistant Professor Eric Freundt, said their overall goal is to help elucidate multiple sclerosis research.
Ganz, one of two students researching with Assistant Professor Eric Freundt, said their overall goal is to help elucidate multiple sclerosis research.
While some assumed contents of a microbiology lab might include lab coats, beakers, pipets and petri dishes, not in Assistant Professor Eric Freundt’s lab. Well, not completely.

There are those things but also computers, basketballs and even a sword. But don’t let the toys fool you. What happens in Freundt’s lab is likely impacting the graduate careers of at least two of his honors students, Bayleigh Benner ’14 and Max Ganz ’15, and with some hard work and a pinch of luck, will make an impact on the medical world.

“Our overall goal is to help elucidate multiple sclerosis research,” said Ganz, of Long Island, NY. “The goal is to identify the cytotoxicity of the MS-like virus and how it correlates to the MS-like pathology.”

Ganz, a double major in biology and psychology with a minor in chemistry , had his first 8 a.m. class at UT with Freundt , later volunteering in his lab and by junior year, was working on an independent project related to the overall research.

“In our initial discussions about the research project, I was impressed with Max’s ability to quickly grasp concepts and ask insightful questions. He demonstrated initiative by independently delving into the literature prior to beginning our research, and I was impressed with his ability to both understand primary research papers and make insightful connections between studies,” Freundt said.

Benner, a double major in marine science and biology with a minor in chemistry , worked with Freundt over the summer as a recipient of the Biology Summer Research Fellowship. She has been studying how a virus, called TMEV, manipulates cellular gene expression during infection, and in particular, how virus infection might cause MS-like disease. Benner is continuing her research this semester and writing a manuscript for submission before she graduates in December.

“I look at gene expression,” said Benner, of Downers Grove, IL. “When the virus enters cells, it completely controls the cell, changing every aspect of the cell and creating more of the virus.”

Freundt explained the difference in the students’ research is that “Max’s research looks at both how the virus makes more copies of itself and disrupts cellular structures, whereas Bayleigh’s research has focused on how the virus turns cellular genes on and off,” Freundt said.

Both Benner and Ganz presented their research projects this September at the 100th annual meeting of the American Society of Microbiology, Southeastern Branch, which had representation from schools including the University of South Florida, Mercer University School of Medicine, the University of Florida and UF College of Medicine, and the University of Alabama. Benner received best undergraduate poster presentation, and Ganz tied for second place.

“When students become active researchers, they are able to fully understand the scientific process,” Freundt said. “I think research experience allows students to approach all of their science classes with a different perspective and enables them to think more critically about what we believe to be true about the natural world.”

Ganz said the opportunity for him to get his hands in the mix piqued his interest immensely and has been solid affirmation he has chosen the right career path.

“You can read all you want in textbooks, but there is something about it being experiential that makes a difference,” said Ganz, who won Undergraduate Researcher of the year at UT last fall. “My degree means more to me, because I’m contributing to the academic community.”

In addition to his research at UT, Ganz held three internships this summer at hospitals back home in New York. This past spring, he studied neuroscience tutorials at Oxford University in England, which Benner did as well in Fall 2012. The Oxford method of study is essay-based where students must defend their position with their professors. Ganz said in those 10 weeks he easily spent eight hours a day in the library.

“I loved it, absolutely,” said Ganz, who is applying to medical schools — his long-term goal is to be a neurosurgeon at an academic hospital where he performs surgery, clinical trials and teaches residents. “I’m a huge nerd.”

His love of research is obvious to Freundt, who said that good researchers become engrossed by a question.

“I’ve seen this with Max. He’s initiated many discussions about how his project might relate to other studies, and he develops solid hypotheses about how his findings might relate to MS,” Freundt said.

Benner, who will pursue a doctoral program in virology in Fall 2015, received an honors research fellowship her junior year studying the feeding biomechanics of sharks with Associate Professor Dan Huber. During her Oxford stay in Fall 2012, she spent almost a month in Egypt on a boat with the Oxford University dive club doing research in the Red Sea. After taking Freundt’s virology class on a whim, she was immediately intrigued.

“Viruses are so elusive. They’re smart and so easily able to replicate themselves,” she said. “Even with Ebola, it’s insane. These viruses change so often, which makes them hard to control. It’s scary but really interesting.”

Benner is hoping to merge her animal and science interests with a career in innovative research. She wants to be involved in a biomedical sciences program that focuses on virology, looking at animal systems and how they can be applied to human medicine. Her undergraduate research experience is giving her a leg up on her applications to schools that include Stanford and Yale.

“Because she has already had such diverse and extensive research training, Bayleigh has been able to make incredible progress in the lab in a relatively short amount of time,” Freundt said. “As an undergraduate, she already compares favorably with graduate students that I’ve trained with at Oxford, NIH and Stanford.”

For Benner, learning by doing was the only way to go.

“By involving myself in experiential learning, it makes everything clearer,” she said. “I mean organic chemistry, that’s the death of all science majors, because it is a big determinant as to whether you can remain in the science programs — but by doing techniques in the lab you learn the material so much better. It’s not so abstract.”

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