Dordt College News

Research momentum

May 18, 2011

Jelsma and his students get their work published.

Momentum is a huge part of doing research,” says Biology Professor Tony Jelsma. And momentum is what Dr. Jelsma and his students have going right now.

The results of their research appeared as the cover story in the March issue of Biology of Reproduction, one of the premier academic journals in reproductive biology today.

The eight Dordt College biology majors listed as contributors to the research each worked for one or more of the past nine summers in either Dordt College labs with Jelsma or the lab of Dr. Gregory Vanden Heuvel in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Jaclyn Ver Mulm, Dr. Tony Jelsma, and Seth Vande Kamp examine tissue sections on the computer using a digital camera and microscope in the histology lab.Jelsma gives credit to Vanden Heuvel for the momentum that he and his students have been able to sustain in their research. He describes Vanden Heuvel’s contribution as “selflessly doing whatever he can for students.”

“Doing original research can be challenging at teaching institutions because we have heavier teaching loads and fewer resources,” he says. That’s why the relationship between Dordt’s biology department and Vanden Heuvel’s lab are so important. It allows Jelsma and his students to build on research Vanden Heuvel is doing on kidney development and disease. It gives good undergraduate students a place to work in the summer and, as importantly, opens up companion projects that Jelsma and his students can pursue at Dordt. Jelsma and some of his students have the opportunity to do original research on campus during the summers without the pressure of having to meet grant deadlines during their busy school year.

“He helps us, and we help him,” says Jelsma.

When a lab takes on a specific project funded by a grant, interesting side questions often arise that the researchers can’t take time to explore because of grant deadlines. That’s what started Jelsma’s research on the CUX 1 gene. Vanden Heuvel was studying the role of this gene in the kidney but wondered if it was also present in other organs. So while his lab was examining the kidneys, Vanden Huevel sent Jelsma samples from other organs. Jelsma’s students found the CUX 1 gene in the testes of the mice samples.

In the kidneys and other developing organs, the CUX 1 gene keeps cells in a proliferating state. In the testes, however, the cells that turn on the CUX 1 gene are not dividing so CUX 1 must be regulating some other process.

“We have some ideas about what CUX 1 is doing in the testes and are writing a grant proposal to be able to pursue those ideas” Jelsma said.

“One antibody preparation can cost $400 but we only need a small sample of it, which Vanden Heuvel can share with us,” says Jelsma, emphasizing the cost benefit of working with Vanden Heuvel and his researchers.

The collaboration began ten years ago when Vanden Heuvel was invited to Dordt to speak at a symposium. He and Jelsma found they had similar interests in molecular biology and histology (studying anatomy under a microscope). Jelsma, then recently hired, had been trying to figure out how to pursue his love of research and also introduce his students to authentic research experiences. Since Vanden Heuvel is always looking for good assistants in his lab, a partnership was born. Vanden Heuvel has hired one or two of Jelsma’s students nearly every summer. In all, fifteen students have contributed to his lab’s research.

Andrea (Pausma, ’01) Van Wyk spent a summer doing research at Dr. Vanden Heuvel’s lab after her sophomore year at Dordt, and then she spent a semester at Dordt looking at the expression of
CUX 1 in various testicular cells for her senior research project.

“I very much appreciated Dr. Vanden Heuvel and his family’s hospitality during my time in Kansas City. He was a wonderful person to work for. He was very patient with each of the Dordt students, as it took a lot of devoted time to introduce each of us to various research practices.”

“Working in Dr. Vanden Heuvel’s lab affirmed my desire to enter the world of academia. I gained experience, insight, and knowledge that I couldn’t get in my classes,” says Matt Schippers, a senior biology major who worked in Kansas City last summer. “Dr. Vanden Heuvel was more of a mentor and less of a boss. He was not just telling us what we needed to do, but shared his wisdom on education, research, and life.” 

While Jelsma is excited about his students’ opportunity to have a published paper to their credit, his passion for the research opportunity goes beyond that.

“I want my students to have the experience of ‘doing’ science, not just learning about it,” he says. “To be able to discover and explore a piece of God’s creation that no one else knows about yet is terribly exciting. Real science isn’t memorizing facts; it is being surprised and challenged.” Doing research develops critical thinking skills and helps students apply what they’ve learned in more formal classroom settings. And for the many biology majors who are pre-med, it gives them valuable exposure to what research is.

“Knowing the research process will make them better doctors,” he says, noting that physicians who know how research works, for example, will have a better understanding of the process of drug development realizing that it’s not “cut and dried.” They’ll understand both the effort that went into the research and how tentative conclusions can be.

Learning the care and discipline needed to do research is good even for those who don’t want to spend their lives in a lab, Jelsma believes. It develops skills like patience, persistence, and precision.

“To be able to participate in research like this at the undergraduate level is remarkable,” he says.

“It was a wonderful eye-opening experience to all of the labor behind scientific discovery,” says Van Wyk. “While I can’t say I regularly use the techniques that I learned during my summer in Kansas City anymore, devoting oneself to research for a time was invaluable. I can read and understand the ‘nitty gritty’ of most medical journal articles. I understand the meticulous nature of collecting data and realize that there is so much data that never even makes it into medical journals because it was ‘not significant.’”

Jelsma also appreciates the opportunity work withVanden Heuvel.

“Science is communal, but it is also competitive because of the need for funding,” Jelsma says. Too often that can lead to a lack of trust. Not here. Dordt’s relationship with Vanden Heuvel’s lab continues to rest on trust, appreciation for each other’s work, and a great desire to learn more about the world God made.


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