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Stimulus funds help student reach dreams

January 07, 2010

In the current economic climate, it's a challenge for young people to find any sort of summer job, let alone a job that both expands their minds and helps society.

But thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Arizona State University student Aida Mohammadreza and thousands of other science-minded students across the nation are hard at work in jobs that yield far more than a paycheck.

A sophomore majoring in biochemistry, Mohammadreza was thrilled to learn that she had secured an ARRA-supported summer research position at an ASU laboratory that uses genome-based tools to study throat cancer. Besides helping to pay college bills, the Mohammadreza's job meshes well with her dream of a career in biomedicine and her desire to help people with cancer.

Mohammadreza's great-grandfather passed away from throat cancer, which sparked the inspiration and motivation for her interest in cancer research.

"I've been told he was very strong throughout his entire life and being diagnosed with cancer was no exception," said Mohammadreza, a daughter of Iranian immigrants who grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. "Such family history has really influenced me to pursue research that would save lives."

For the past year, Mohammadreza has worked at the ASU Biodesign Institute's Center for Ecogenomics under the guidance of her mentor Laimonas Kelbauskas. She is able to continue her research there this summer because of an ARRA-funded administrative supplement that was awarded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) to Deirdre Meldrum, the center's director and the dean of ASU's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

"We were delighted to receive the added boost to our research made possible by the ARRA stimulus funding from NHGRI," Meldrum said. "It is impossible to overemphasize the value of the contributions that highly motivated, talented undergraduates like Aida bring to our efforts."

Nationwide, ARRA funding will support approximately 5,100 research and training positions this summer for high school and college students, as well as science educators.

"If I didn't have this summer research position, I would definitely look for another opportunity in genome research," Mohammadreza said. "The ARRA funding will allow me to turn my ideas and dreams into a reality."

Mohammadreza will study Barrett's esophagus, a condition that affects about 1 percent of adults in the United States. In Barrett's esophagus, the cells lining the lower part of the throat, or esophagus, are replaced with cells that appear similar to those that line the intestines. The disorder is often found in people who suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease, which occurs when acidic contents from the stomach rise into the esophagus. A small number of people with Barrett's esophagus develop a rare but particularly deadly type of throat cancer.

Mohammadreza's work involves analyzing individual cells to understand the genetic differences between healthy esophageal cells and the cells seen in Barrett's esophagus. Such information is important for understanding the fundamental mechanisms involved in the disease process, which in turn may lead to new or better ways to treat or prevent the condition.

Scientific inquiry seems to come naturally to Mohammadreza. Back in elementary school, she would play veterinarian with her best friend's dog. Mohammadreza said that she would create odd concoctions of anything she deemed healthy, such as eggs, milk, carrots, grape juice, bananas and herbs. But did she feed it to the canine? That was too obvious – and too easy, she said. Instead, she'd soak bandages in the murky mixture and cover the unlucky dog from head to tail.

Mohammadreza balances her love of science with an equally strong love of helping others. Beside her paid work in the lab, she's volunteering this summer at Scottsdale Healthcare Hospital and Chandler Regional Medical Center. She also belongs to several student-run charitable groups, including Habitat for Humanity and Global Medical Brigade.

"One of the aims of genome research is to develop drugs that improve people's quality of life, a goal similar to my own," Mohammadreza said. "There are many people that are vulnerable to life-threatening diseases, and I want to be part of a team that could help them."

This article originally appeared on the National Human Genome Research Institute Web site. Reposted with permission.