HTC student uses flies to find a cure

Ohio University prides itself on the hands-on experience it offers its students, including biological research by Scott Varga, a senior studying neuroscience who is researching the cure for Parkinson’s disease.

Varga began working with Daewoo Lee, biological science professor and mentor, at the beginning of the last academic year after hearing about his research in the Honors Tutorial College program.

Students involved in the HTC program must meet different, additional standards than other OU students. For example, they have an opportunity to engage in a tutorial, during which they sample what several different professors study, said Janet Duerr, director of study for the HTC neuroscience program.

Students may contact any of the professors to learn more about their research or assist in the research and gain hands-on experience with no application needed, a facet Varga took advantage of.

The research is funded partially through the university. However, Varga was awarded the Provost Undergraduate Research Fund, PURF, grant when he began the research, Lee said.

“Also, I’m going to apply for the NIH (National Institute of Health) grant,” he said.

Lee and Varga began their research together studying memory and learning with another student who graduated last spring. After the Student Research Expo last May, Varga decided to switch to studying Parkinson’s disease because  “it was more interesting to me.”

The experiments they conduct involve fruit flies rather than human beings to avoid ethical concerns. In flies, genetic manipulation is easier, and they share two-thirds of humans’ genes, Lee said.

In Parkinson’s disease, motor function cells do not work properly. Effects on flies can be observed simply by shining light of a particular wavelength, typically blue light, on their heads, which activates the neurons and impacts their behavior. This is a process known as optogenetics, Lee said.

“(The research) is certainly not what I expected,” Varga said. “As far as goals, I think I just wanted to get a little research experience (and) learn how to design a project on my own. But I didn’t really expect it to be quite so much work. I enjoy it, (but) it was a surprise at first.”

In addition to the quality of the experience, Varga also endures a long-term commitment, spending the majority of his time in the lab even continuing research through university breaks, Duerr said.

“He is taking 10 credits of research,” she said, explaining that by taking part in research projects, HTC students earn college credit and will not delay graduation. “He spends most of the time in the lab, making his own project and will write up a thesis. He’s a great student.”

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