College students’ innovative research at The Hormel Institute

Multiple labs give undergraduates remote research experiences to further education

AUSTIN, Minn. – August 24, 2020 – Students and faculty at The Hormel Institute, University of Minnesota worked together to find creative ways to offer important education and career building research experiences this summer. Despite the inability to meet in person or work onsite, several college students were able to have productive and exciting summers working with cancer researchers at The Hormel Institute.

Due to COVID-19, the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) internship program was cancelled for 2020, but two SURE interns graduating in 2020 and ineligible to reapply next summer were given the opportunity to work with a lab at The Hormel Institute. The Institute professors ensured they gained important experience and learned new techniques even though they couldn’t be on site.

“We have had great experiences working with SURE students in the past few years. These undergraduate students are talented and extremely hard working with their summer internship,” said Dr. Rendong Yang, head of the Computational Cancer Genomics lab at The Hormel Institute.

Yang has hosted SURE interns in the past and was very willing to work with the SURE interns who would not be able to return next summer for an in-person experience.

“Our lab mainly works in an office-based model that uses IT technologies to answer questions of understanding cancer biology. The nature of our research does not require benchwork and so is flexible for remote research activities. This is extremely important during the COVID-19 pandemic situation to keep social distance. Therefore, we believe our students can contribute our research in an efficient manner even if they are not present in the lab.”

Leah Anderton, a student at Cedarville University, and Samantha Maddock, a student at Fordham University, both worked remotely with Dr. Yang over the summer, working independently to complete projects under Dr. Yang’s supervision. With the work they accomplished, Leah and Samantha will both be listed as co-authors on research papers Dr. Yang is submitting, and both plan to continue working with Dr Yang into the fall semester.

“When Dr. Rendong Yang reached out to me about remotely volunteering with his computational genomics lab, I was thrilled,” said Anderton.

“I had no previous knowledge of computational genomics, and this summer gave me an introduction into the importance of this field. I was able to contribute to one of the team’s ongoing projects working on a computational model to predict the lncRNA pathways. Contributing to this project and learning about lncRNAs and their roles in cancer significantly grew my interest in cancer research as well as computational genomics. I thoroughly enjoyed helping out with the project and am planning on continuing to assist Dr. Yang’s lab throughout this coming school year on a related project.”

The appreciation and enthusiasm for the experience – albeit a remote one, continued.

“I am so grateful for the opportunity I had this summer to work with Dr. Yang and perform remote research despite everything going on in the world,” said Samantha Maddock.

“We met at the beginning of the summer over Zoom, and Dr. Yang introduced me to the research that he performs and assigned me a project to progressively work on over the course of the summer.  With Dr. Yang’s help and guidance, I was able to compose a table of 160 experimentally validated neoantigens and obtain a better understanding of cancer immunology in general. I had a great experience working with Dr. Yang and look forward to continue working remotely with his lab this fall.”

Other students were able to gain experience via remote internships with Institute scientists this summer as well.

Dr. Jarrod French, head of the Nucleotide Metabolism & Drug Discovery lab at The Hormel Institute UMN, worked with colleagues from Ithaca College and SUNY Cortland to develop a project that allows undergraduate students to use their home computers to screen thousands of compounds to look for the most likely to interact with a specific protein target and block its activity. After the summer, Dr. French and his colleagues will be able to use the list the students generate to investigate further in the lab. This summer, there are seven students participating but Dr. French hopes they can expand in future years.

“The exciting part of this work is that we are giving these students the opportunity to gain research experience and, at the same time, using this crowd-sourced approach to help us solve an important research problem,” said Dr. French.

“Even after we are able to return to a more normal working situation we hope to keep this program going to provide opportunities for those students who aren’t able to take advantage of traditional laboratory research experiences, such as those who care for family members or work during the summer time.”

Dr. Ilana Chefetz, head of the Cancer Stem Cells & Necroptosis lab at The Hormel Institute, worked remotely with two students this summer who helped with bioinformatics work related to Dr. Chefetz’s ovarian cancer research.

“It was an absolute pleasure and honor to work with Dr. Chefetz this summer,” said Danielle Jamison, a student at Trinity College.

“I am extremely appreciative of my experience and what I learned will help me further my education and be a lifelong investment in my career.”

Suad Mohamed, a student at Carleton University, also worked with Dr. Chefetz this summer and will have the opportunity to start lab work for this project in September with a new grant from the Marsha Rivkin Ovarian Cancer Foundation.

The Hormel Institute UMN has an education outreach program that supports and impacts students from elementary school through postdoctoral training.