Immersive Research Fellowship Inspires UT Dallas Undergraduates

  • Biology major Steve Phan presented his findings at the Green Fellows poster session after spending a semester immersed in a research project related to acute leukemia at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Catherine Davis loves to run and play sports like soccer, basketball and volleyball. Thanks in part to her recent experience in the Green Fellows Program at UT Dallas, the biomedical engineering major is aiming for a career that will allow her to share that joy with others.

Davis was one of about two dozen science, math and engineering undergraduates at UT Dallas who spent the spring 2015 semester as Green Fellows, immersed entirely in basic or medical research at UT Southwestern Medical Center, one of the country’s top academic medical centers.

“After seeing that many amputee athletes are still able to compete with the proper prosthetic, I was inspired to look into research with prosthetics,” said Davis, a member of the University’s women’s cross country team.

Green Fellows take no classes during the semester, but earn 12 hours of credit as they spend a spring term at the Dallas-based UT Southwestern campus with faculty mentors and their lab personnel. Students are assigned a research project based on their skills and interests, although no previous research experience is required.

Green Fellow research

Catherine Davis, a biomedical engineering major and cross country runner, wrote computer code to control a harness and pulley system that helps amputees with prosthetic legs better control their gait.

For Davis, the Green Fellows Program provided a perfect opportunity to pursue her research interests.

“Because many amputees walk with a limp or lean toward their prosthetic limb, my research focused on helping lower limb amputees learn to walk correctly with their new prosthetic leg,” said Davis, who earlier this year earned a spot on the American Southwest Conference’s Academic All-ASC cross country team.

Working with faculty mentor Dr. Fan Gao, an assistant professor in the prosthetics-orthotics program at UT Southwestern, Davis wrote computer code to control a pulley-and-harness system set above a treadmill. The apparatus uses sensors to detect the pressure of each step and activate the pulley system, which helps correct the gait of an amputee using a prosthetic limb.

During the Green Fellowship, which includes a stipend, students are encouraged to attend seminars and lectures at the medical center and to fully engage in the research culture. At the end of the semester, students compile and present a poster that highlights their research and results.

Most students complete the program during their junior year. Freshmen and sophomores who think they might be interested in participating should talk with their academic advisors about arranging their schedules to accommodate the semester away from classes, said Dr. Dean Sherry, co-director of the Green Fellows Program, professor of chemistry and the Cecil H. and Ida Green Distinguished Chair in Systems Biology at UT Dallas.

“Green Fellows learn firsthand how to plan and execute an experimental strategy that answers a scientific question, and they learn how to work with other researchers,” said Sherry, who holds a joint appointment as director of the Advanced Imaging Research Center at UT Southwestern.

“They gain experience with standard research techniques, and they get a realistic taste of the time and commitment that’s involved if they pursue a research career. While most students find the program enriching and encouraging, a few decide after completing the program that the research environment is not a good career choice for them, and that’s equally as important.”

Green Fellowship

Application deadline for spring 2016 class of Green Fellows is Oct. 18. 

Freshmen and sophomores: Talk with your academic advisor about arranging your schedule to accommodate a semester away from classes.

Apply on the Green Fellowship website.

Davis said her time as a Green Fellow has helped define her career path. She is interested in post-market surveillance for medical devices, assisting amputees after they have received their prostheses.

“Above all, the Green Fellows experience has taught me that I love to work directly with people,” she said.

As a Green Fellow last spring, biochemistry senior Maneera Chopra performed basic research with fruit flies, investigating how specific genes might affect the health and activity of stem cells. 

Although she has been conducting research since she was in high school and hopes to pursue a career in medicine, Chopra said she was initially nervous about taking a semester off to focus solely on research.

“I didn’t know what to expect from UT Southwestern,” said Chopra, who also finds time to pursue her interests in piano and the arts. “I was worried that I wouldn’t fit in well with my lab, or that I wouldn’t understand or enjoy my project. It turned out that I was worried for no reason because my mentor gave me an interesting project. My fellow lab members were very helpful people who I ended up becoming good friends with.”

Chopra has set up a new website devoted to the Green Fellows and their experiences. The site includes descriptions of research projects and firsthand accounts from students who have completed the program.

“I created the Green Fellows website to spread awareness of a true hidden gem at UT Dallas,” Chopra said. “Few universities have a direct partnership with a top medical and research institute. UT Southwestern has so much to offer. I wanted all students to feel fully informed and encouraged to commit themselves to this wonderful opportunity.”

The Green Fellowship Program was established with support from the Cecil H. Green Trust. Cecil Green was one of the founders of both Texas Instruments and the research institute that in 1969 became The University of Texas at Dallas. Green and his wife, Ida, were major benefactors to educational and cultural institutions worldwide.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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