Minh Than, one of the University of Colorado Boulder's three Goldwater Scholarship winners in 2011, is spending his summer working in the lab of Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and CU-Boulder Professor Min Han.
Than is a junior with a double major in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and biochemistry. His research interests include investigating cancer with the long-term goal of improving early detection and treatment of the disease.
In the lab he works with tissue-specific microRNAs, which are regulators of gene expression. Discovered in the early 2000s, microRNAs are being widely studied because their exact functions are unknown, and discovering how they function could possibly lead to medical breakthroughs in treatments and cures related to gene regulation.
"If we can figure out how microRNAs act in certain tissues, that gives us the ability to figure out how these molecules are allowing the tissue to do what it does," Than said.
Than is studying the neurons of tiny round worms called caenorhabditis elegans, which are commonly used in molecular and developmental biology as a model organism.
"I am studying neurons in these tiny worms because understanding how worm neurons work can teach us lessons about mammalian neurons, which could possibly further the understanding of diseases related to misregulation of genes in neurons," Than said.
Understanding microRNAs is important because every animal from worms up to humans has them. By figuring out how they work in specific tissues, we can see if they are doing the same thing in both organisms, Than said.
Once he completes his undergraduate degree, Than plans to pursue an M.D.-Ph.D. program, which provides training in both medicine and research.
"My interest in a program like this is to gain a lot of medical knowledge that I can then apply to my research," he said. "In the future I hope to use my research to improve molecular diagnosis of cancer, which would mean earlier detection and treatment."
In May 2010, Than was awarded a $10,000 scholarship from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. Than is from Westminster and is a 2008 graduate of Thornton High School.