WMU News

Award-winning high school students mentored by WMU researcher

March 10, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- Having a seasoned University researcher as a mentor has paid off for two Battle Creek high school students who earned national honors and $30,000 as a result of research they did with him.

Melinda M. Sloma and Seetharam C. Chadalavada, students at the Battle Creek Area Mathematics and Science Center, took first place at the regional Siemens Westinghouse Science Research Competition, earning the pair a $30,000 scholarship prize and the chance to compete at the national contest. Their research was done in the Western Michigan University laboratory of Dr. John M. Spitsbergen, assistant professor of biological sciences and an experienced researcher in the area of neurobiology.

The Battle Creek Area Math and Science Center, which the students attend half days, requires its students to do research as part of its curriculum. Sloma and Chadalavada both wanted to pursue research on their own and came to Spitsbergen as sophomores, requesting his help as a mentor.

Spitsbergen set the students up working on a project that examines how muscle cells can invigorate nerve cells to help the body repair itself from neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's or Lou Gehrig's disease. Sloma and Chadalavada have worked with Spitsbergen for more than two years, doing their research after school and during their summer breaks.

"These kids do a heck of a job," he says. "They do literature searches, experiments in the lab, plan experiments and give presentations. I am amazed by their commitment. They've been here longer than most university students I have in the lab."

Their work resulted in the presentation, "Can the Production of Neurotrophic Factor (GDNF) Be Altered to Control Neurodegenerative Disorders?" which they gave at the Siemens Westinghouse competitions. The pair claimed the regional title at Notre Dame and competed in the national contest in December in Washington D.C. While Sloma and Chadalavada didn't claim the top prize in the national contest, they were subsequently selected to be featured in national publicity efforts to encourage team research.

"The judges felt that they best exemplified what it means to do team research," says Connie Duncan, director of the Battle Creek Area Mathematics and Science Center. "They were commended for how they worked together as a team and how they acted as a team."

Spitsbergen welcomed the opportunity to work with the high school students to try to interest them in scientific research.

"It is important to involve kids, especially in research. Any chance I get to take up research with students, I will," he says. "Most students in the sciences want to go on to medical schools and don't consider a career in research. I like having the chance to get them interested in research."

His attentions have paid off, as Sloma hopes to pursue biomedical research as a career. Chadalavada is entering the pre-medical program at University of Michigan in the fall and plans to continue his research activities.

The students say that working with Spitsbergen has been an enlightening experience in many ways.

"In the beginning, it was hard to learn all the scientific terms, but Dr. Spitsbergen made it easier by giving us articles to read and giving us information on anatomy and physiology," says Sloma. "He's open to answer any questions and we can come and talk to him about techniques and experiments, but he gives us space and lets us work on our own."

Chadalavada found that working with Spitsbergen was a little bit different than he first imagined.

"My first impression was from talking on the phone with him and I thought he was going to be some old professor in a lab coat," he says. "He is very energetic and his enthusiasm makes it even more exciting."

While the students have surpassed the work required to earn credit from their program, their efforts continue. They come to the lab nearly every day after school and plan to continue until they both go to college in the fall. Among their activities will be writing and preparing material from their project for publication.

Duncan says the students' success can be attributed partly to their mentor.

"John must be very dedicated," she says. "He's been a very good mentor to them."

Sloma is the daughter of Ronald and Barbara Sloma of Battle Creek, Mich., and attends Battle Creek Central High School.

Chadalavada is the son of Ravi and Sarada Chadalavada of Battle Creek, Mich., and attends Lakeview High School.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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