New IU students ‘jump into science’ with Integrated Freshman Learning Experience

Although she doesn’t officially start her freshman year at Indiana University Bloomington until August, Gloria Xue is already immersed in the life of a scientist.

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Incoming freshman Gloria Xue examines flies under a microscope during IU’s Integrated Freshman Learning Experience. Photo by IU Communications

As one of only 10 students accepted for the summer portion of this year’s Integrated Freshman Learning Experience program, Xue has chosen to spend “summer vacation” working six to eight hours a day in the lab of Brian Calvi, associate professor in the IU College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology. She is searching for genes that may cause some cancer cells to resist radiation treatment.

IU’s Integrated Freshman Learning Experience program includes a six-week intensive lab experience from mid-June to late July, followed by a two-semester, eight-credit honors course. Students also participate in enrichment activities over the summer and prepare an independent project under the guidance of faculty and graduate mentors.

The program is supported by the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences and the IU Office of Science Outreach. About 250 to 300 students apply to the program each year, with about 12 to 18 accepted annually.

“The work I’m doing here is really interesting, and preparing me for what I want to do in the future,” said Xue, who is considering pursuing medical school or cancer research, among other careers. “It’s great to get to jump right in to science instead of waiting for science to come to me.”

The program also provides a built-in community of like-minded peers, all of whom are simultaneously learning the ropes in the lab and to navigate campus as incoming freshmen. Everyone eats meals together twice a week and lives on campus at the Ashton Residence Center. And since they’re pursuing various subjects, they’re continually learning from each other.

“It’s fun because we have the same mindset, but our actual knowledge is spread across a lot of different fields,” Xue says. “You get to meet other people who are intensely interested in science, and we see each other constantly.”

A graduate of Carmel High School, Xue came to the program with some lab experience at the IU Simon Cancer Center, where her mother works in the lab of IU professor Bryan Schneider. But she says the sort of work she’s doing at IU – genetic research using fruit flies as a model system – is a completely new experience.

Specifically, Xue is assisting in the search for genes that cause some cells to switch from growth through cellular division to the endocycle, an alternate growth phase where cells physically grow larger in size without division.

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As part of her work, Xue is doing genetic research using fruit flies. Photo by IU Communications

The endocycle is a normal form of cellular growth in most cases. But Calvi and other labs have found evidence that the endocycle may also play a role in some types of cancer, as well as their ability to survive some types of cancer treatment, such as radiation.

“A big challenge in the cancer field is understanding therapy resistance and relapse,” said Calvi, whose lab is screening thousands of fruit fly genes to pinpoint the select few that appear to activate the endocycle. “As we identify these genes, Gloria will be employing advanced fluorescence microscopy to determine if they induce cells to grow larger, which indicates that they’ve switched to the endocycle growth phase.

“Using the powerful genetic and molecular tools available in fruit flies will lead to a better knowledge about the activation of the endocycle in these cells and their survival, and ultimately contribute to the development of new and more effective cancer treatments,” he added.

Helping Xue learn to use the tools required for this complex work is Michael Rotelli, a Ph.D. student who serves as her daily mentor in the lab. He assigns scientific readings, provides mentorship in oral and written communication, and gives hands-on instruction in specialized processes and technology.

The work also syncs perfectly with the overall goals of the program: to expose students to the rigorous work required by the sciences as well as give them the chance to contribute meaningfully to basic research.

“Few opportunities in a student’s life provide a more intellectually rich or academically challenging experience than attacking an unsolved problem in a research laboratory,” said Sidney Shaw, IU associate professor of biology and director of the program. “The intellectual climate at IU is creative, inclusive and curiosity driven. Our students are really exposed to science as an enterprise where creativity and intellectual drive are highly valued.”

Calvi also said students play a significant role in the generation of new knowledge.

“A lot of science is performed by postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduates – they’re who make the day-to-day work of science happen – and Gloria is already a ‘junior scientist’ in a very real sense,” Calvi said. “I especially enjoy having undergrads in the lab since you get the opportunity to have a larger impact on their future. When students are younger, you’ve got a real chance to make a difference in their careers.”

Calvi’s lab has previously hosted four other IFLE students. One of those undergraduates, Christophoros Herodotou, is a former Integrated Freshman Learning Experience student.

In addition, the program also provides numerous experiences outside the lab, such as career and writing workshops and classroom instruction. There are also ample opportunities for peer mentoring by previous Integrated Freshman Learning Experience students.

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PhD candidate Michael Rotelli, left, associate professor of Biology Brian Calvi and Xue work in the lab. Photo by IU Communications

One such mentor is Reyan Coskun, a rising sophomore who is creating even more chances for interaction between the program’s students and their older peers. New events this year include get-to-know-you activities like a networking barbecue and campus scavenger hunt.

“We’re really having more events than ever this year, plus I know a lot of the student mentors are really making an effort to simply hang out with the students in their spare time,” Coskun said. “We’re also running a workshop on how to deliver their presentations, among other things. It’s nice because we’ve already gone through the process and can talk about it a little bit differently than their faculty mentors since we’re closer to the same age.”

Coskun is also a Wells Scholar and a participant in IU’s Science, Technology and Research Scholars, or STARs, program, which boasts many past Integrated Freshman Learning Experience students. Seven past students in the program have also been named Goldwater Scholars, a prestigious national award that supports student careers in mathematics, natural sciences and engineering.

After the program wraps up with student project presentations July 29, Xue and her peers will begin their yearlong honors experience, which will be taught by Shaw, IU professor of chemistry Nikki Pohl and IU professor of psychological and brain sciences Andrea Hohmann. Five other undergrads will join the initial 10 participants for this part of the program.

“It’s definitely a great idea for these students to get this experience early,” Rotelli said. “There is a long learning curve in science, and this makes you really competitive and competent.”

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