By Published: Feb. 26, 2020

CURE Symposium is an undergraduate research conference that promotes scientific and self-discovery, and Sarah Campione’s work on python livers is just one example

Among tables of colorful hors d'oeuvres, students mingling in their shiniest shoes and sleekest ties, and rows of professional presentations lining the grand atrium of the Jennie Smoly Caruthers Biotechnology Building, one might have felt a sense of accomplishment won after a long, hard semester.

But a more inconspicuous emotion emerged from the chatter among peers, families and faculty participants as the students presented their research results at December’s Course-based Undergraduate Research (CURE) Symposium. Participants say that feeling was wonder.

Sara Campione pipettes samples into a 96-well plate as part of her research on Burmese python liver genetics.

Above: Sara Campione pipettes samples into a 96-well plate as part of her research on Burmese python liver genetics. Photo by Pamela Harvey. At the top of the page: Madelyn MacLaughlin discusses a poster during the symposium. 

For Sara Campione, a senior in molecular, cellular and developmental biology (MCDB), the wonder lay in the genes of a Burmese python. A python liver, to be exact.

“If you told me freshman year that we could one day modify genes for a disease we have no cure for at the moment, I wouldn’t believe it,” Campione says. 

Using tissue isolated from the liver of the python, Campione spent the semester comparing the expression of liver gene ABCC2 to the timing of how fat is digested after feeding. 

“The python, as an extreme model, allows us to study gene expression so we can attribute them to human diseases such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD),” Campione explains. The python is called an extreme model because it has the ability to process a large amount of fats quickly. “This allows us to study the process in a faster and easier way than in humans,” she says. 

Scientists hope that someday modifying the gene ABCC2—the same gene found in humans—could mitigate the effects of liver diseases such as NAFLD, which can lead to chronic liver damage and liver failure. Campione says pursuing this work in the python lab has been invaluable.

“Creating the foundation for research such as this definitely makes me feel ready to go into the world and to apply it in ways that can affect the future,” she says.

For Campione, who graduates this spring, the future probably holds a career in veterinary medicine. But for many of her compatriots, the goal is to work in a scientific research lab, and the symposium is a gateway.

“Students get a good amount of experience presenting posters at the symposium,” says Pamela Harvey, senior MCDB instructor and the event’s founder. “They put it in on their resume, which makes them more competitive in the long run.”

Moreover, the students learn second-level biosafety protocols, allowing them to work with infectious bacteria. “They gain valuable skills in lab techniques such as pipetting small volumes and running screens to discover new drugs,” she says. 

Harvey based the CURE symposium on a potluck-style poster session that provided peer evaluation to 16 students enrolled in The Python Project. With the formation of two large research-based courses collectively titled the Discovery Labs in 2014, the symposium became a full-size scientific meeting. 

“If it’s real research, (the teaching faculty) had the expectation that they should be able to present and defend their work in public,” Harvey says of students enrolled in the Discovery Labs, in which mostly first-year students screen for and research potential novel antibiotics and chemotherapeutics.

It’s incredible to see how excited the teaching faculty are to get on board with something that is good for their students,​"

With the addition of more labs, the CURE Symposium is now a biannual academic event in which nearly 400 undergraduate presenters in seven research-based MCDB lab courses showcase their research before their peers and the public. 

“Most trainees in science do not have the opportunity to present and defend their research until their post-graduate experiences,” Harvey says. “The CURE Symposium provides all students with this opportunity, regardless of whether or not they earn a doctorate in the future.”

The event consists of an evening poster session at which peers evaluate each other’s work for a grade. Two poster sessions are interspersed with 10-minute formal talks selected from each course, at which students present their research and answer questions.

Harvey is encouraged by the skills students are gaining and the excitement instructors show each semester as the event approaches.

“It’s incredible to see how excited the teaching faculty are to get on board with something that is good for their students,” Harvey says. “They go the extra mile to help them.”

Students can present at the symposium as many as four times in their school career as the biology lab curriculum advances. For instance, Campione began her lab work as a sophomore with a group in the Phage Genomics Lab. After watching a presentation from seniors developing independent research for the Python Project, she was hooked.

“As an undergraduate, being able to be exposed to novel research and the symposium is really amazing,” Campione says. “The multi-year format laid the groundwork for me to be able to do what I did this year.”

And the future for students who self-select for courses such as the Python Project are promising, according to Harvey’s research on course outcomes for the Faculty Teaching Excellence Program at CU.

“These students tend to be quite academically competitive,” Harvey says. “More than half leaving the Python Project, for example, end up in a PhD or MD program.”

But the labs do more than just encourage future scientists; they also help students discern between career paths.

“There are students who are going to go to med school and grad school,” Harvey says. “It will serve them well to learn how to present data, how to talk about it and defend it. That is critically important for their future.”

For those who don’t continue in a research-related field, “These students learn how to analyze and interpret data, so they know what is real and what is not based on the source before them,” Harvey says. “This group gains valuable skills in scientific literacy.”

Brian Medaugh, an undergraduate who presented group research on antibiotic resistance at the symposium, says he thinks more people would benefit from hands-on scientific research.

As a freshman, being able to actually work as a scientist is kind of a dream come true,”

“We are exposed to the results of experimentation all the time, and we don’t hold it in super high regard,” he says. “Having people develop that sense of what it takes to do research would be excellent step with our culture and civilization.”

Having also worked with CU’s SpaceServe technology, Medaugh is still undecided on his career path, but has used his biology lab experience to learn about pharmaceutical research.

His lab partner, freshman Madelyn Maclaughlin, hopes her research experience will help her springboard into one of CU Boulder’s highly competitive professional labs.

“As a freshman, being able to actually work as a scientist is kind of a dream come true,” Maclaughlin says. “Everyone needs to start somewhere, especially for undergrads to see if this is the career path they want to go on.”

With seven CURE labs and growing, students will have a variety of experiences to choose from, provided the support structure for the labs—and the symposium—continues to grow alongside.

Harvey’s vision of the future for the symposium comes down to a word. “Funding,” she says. “Research involves many more costs than just looking at a slide through a microscope.” 

The cost of hosting the symposium alone is $8,000 per semester, beyond the price of the work itself. The costs of disposable supplies, biohazard safety measures and lab equipment run in the thousands, plus, more intensive research brings higher costs.

“The students are the bread and butter of the university,” Harvey says. “It would be amazing if a stable funding source was available to continue to support students moving forward and to further empower their futures.”