April 18, 2019  

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Southern Miss Mentoring Program Celebrates Six Years with Largest Class

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Afnan “Nan” Muhamad Buti, a senior at Oak Grove High School, was mentored by Dr. Sabine Heinhorst. (Photo by Tara Burcham)

The department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at The University of Southern Mississippi is celebrating six years of project SEED, a high school chemistry mentoring program, with its biggest group of participants. 

Five students from Mississippi high schools spent their summer on the Southern Miss campus conducting cutting-edge research in an apprenticeship-like manner. 

The students participating included:

  • Afnan “Nan” Muhamad Buti, a senior at Oak Grove High School, mentored by Dr. Sabine Heinhorst;
  • Clintisha “Tisha” Sellers, a junior Moss Point High School, mentored by Dr. Vijay Rangachari;
  • Shelby Thames, a junior at Purvis High School, mentored by Dr. Faqing Huang;
  • Christina Legradi, a senior at Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, mentored by Dr. Wujian Miao;
  • Jamarii Robinson, a junior at the Mississippi School of Math and Science, mentored by Dr. Douglas Masterson. 

“Project SEED provides an excellent opportunity for high school students to spend eight weeks on the USM campus to work in a real chemistry research environment finding solutions to real world problems,” said Dr. Douglas Masterson, SEED Coordinator and associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “The SEED program gives them a glimpse into college life, teaches them how to work as a team, and provides opportunities for them to work with equipment and techniques that are not available in most high school settings.”

The SEED program involves a partnership between Southern Miss and the American Chemical Society (ACS) with support from the Office of the Vice President for Research and the College of Science and Technology Dean’s office. SEED is open to qualified students entering their junior or senior year in high school. 

Buti decided to apply to the SEED program after being referred by a former SEED student and finding enjoyment in Advanced Placement chemistry in high school. “I looked into the program and thought it would be a perfect opportunity to gain research experience before my college journey as a biochemistry major,” said Buti. “It is beyond what I had expected to be doing in the summer. The advanced technology is fascinating.”

Buti said Project SEED offered her the experience of a lifetime and far more than your average summer job. “What teenager gets this amazing opportunity? I am just coming out of high school and am prepared for college this fall. Without project SEED, I would not have been exposed to all of the advanced biochemistry experiments I would have to do in the future, so the program definitely provided me with a head start on my research experience and has also sparked my interest in research.” 

Thames, who plans to double major in chemistry and forensic chemistry, worked with Dr. Faqing Huang on biomedical applications of RNA. “As a part of Dr. Huang’s anticancer research project, I worked with Dr. Huang and graduate student Joe Spangler on preparation of different formats of RNA and test of their cytotoxicity in cell culture,” said Thames. “I made different RNA molecules in the test tube by a method invented by Dr. Huang, purified RNAs by gel electrophoresis, quantitated RNAs by spectrophotometry, and tested their toxic effects on cultured cells.”

Huang’s lab works with RNA. “Like DNA, RNA has relatively simple chemical composition and is well known for its biological functions. However, in the past decade, scientists have made a number of exciting new discoveries on RNA ranging from RNA interference, microRNA, and RNA-related immunity,” said Huang. “Their discoveries have generated great hope about the possibility of using RNA for broad therapeutic applications from immunity modulation to cancer intervention. Our lab, in collaboration with Dr. Yanlin Guo in Biology department, has been focusing on developing RNA-based strategies to target cancer cells.” 

“The work Shelby did included making different formats of RNA molecules and testing their anti-cancer effects in cell culture. Although Shelby had very limited knowledge of chemistry and biochemistry at the beginning, he was a quick learner. He excelled in very detail-oriented experimental techniques and was able to produce useful data. I hope Shelby continues the progression through academics that he showed in the lab, wisely chooses his college programs, and excels in any career field he chooses to pursue,” said Huang. 

Thames called Dr. Huang a “great” mentor. “I learned so much this summer including specific techniques, textbook knowledge, and valuable life lessons. The SEED program has allowed me to become more independent. It also has given me a great learning experience that I wouldn't have received at my high school.”

Masterson said this is the first summer SEED had a student from the Gulf Coast. Clintisha Sellers, a junior from Moss Point High School, was mentored by Dr. Vijay Rangachari.  “It was exciting to see the program expand not only by having the highest number of students participating, but also reaching students across that state of Mississippi, including our coast high schools,” said Masterson. 

Rangachari said the most exciting part of the SEED experience for him personally is “the fact that, in the process of gaining valuable experience in research and science, Tisha discovered her innate abilities and interests towards science, which never before surfaced in her life. It would not be an understatement to say Tisha’s experience in my lab this summer could be one of the pivotal events that has the potential to change her life for good.”  Rangachari said he enjoyed mentoring “such a truly deserving bright student.”

 The ACS designed Project SEED for ambitious, motivated, and hard-working students with an academic record of success in high school science courses. Teacher recommendations were also included in the project criteria. 

 “Having such a large group of students on campus this year allowed them to interact with one another and make new friendships that will last a lifetime,” said Masterson.  “The students were able to spend an extended period of time on campus and became aware of the numerous opportunities that Southern Miss has to offer students in the sciences.”

Masterson said he hopes Project SEED will help get more students in to chemistry while increasing enrollment at Southern Miss.

 “This is certainly a good recruiting tool for the University and the College of Science and Technology. Getting students involved in on-campus activities provides the students with a sense of what Southern Miss can offer beyond the classroom,” he said.

For more information about the Southern Miss SEED program, contact Masterson at 601.266.4714 or go to the USM SEED website at www.usm.edu/chemistry-biochemistry/usm-project-seed.