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Dartmouth Medical School Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center

Vital Signs

Improving the state of scientific education

By Jennifer Durgin

Keene State faculty member Loren Launen, standing, looks over the shoulder of Jeff Tretheway, a recent Keene graduate who is one of NH-INBRE's success stories.

In the world of biomedical research, there are the "haves" and the "have-nots": Those who have the expertise, equipment, resources, and experience to compete for federal research dollars and those who don't.

Haves: In New Hampshire, Dartmouth and the University of New Hampshire (UNH)—and, to a lesser degree, Keene State and Plymouth State—are the "haves." Smaller institutions that focus primarily on undergraduate education are by most measures "have-nots."

Such places have "great faculty and students who want [to do] research really badly, but they don't have the resources to do it," says Dr. Ronald Taylor, a professor of microbiology and immunology at DMS.

But now, thanks to a $15-million grant from the National Institutes of Health, faculty from DMS and UNH are helping the "have-nots" launch research programs. Eight colleges have joined DMS and UNH in the initiative, which is known as the New Hampshire IDeA (Institutional Development Award) Network of Biomedical Research Excellence—or NH-INBRE.

Small: "I didn't really have a research lab" before NH-INBRE, says Dr. Lori Bergeron, a microbiologist at New England College (NEC) in Henniker, N.H. Bergeron is one of 14 scientists at small colleges throughout the state who have teamed up with experienced researchers at DMS and UNH. Bergeron earned her Ph.D. at the University of Rochester and completed two postdoctoral fellowships before starting to teach full-time. She loves teaching undergraduates—and also loves doing research, but until now never had the money to buy equipment and materials and to hire students. She didn't even have a proper space in which to conduct experiments. Now, she and her colleague James Newcomb, a biologist at NEC and another of the participants in NH-INBRE, have the funding and the tools to do original research.

Labs: "The difference between the old and new labs is immeasurable," Newcomb told an NEC publication. "With the old laboratory, work surfaces and storage areas were limited and there was no refrigeration." In addition to a freezer and more storage and workspace, the lab now has a generator to protect experiments and specimens from the power failures that can happen in New Hampshire.

But getting the right equipment and workspace is just one of several ingredients necessary to conduct biomedical research. Scientists also need strong relationships with other researchers in their field to collaborate with and learn from. A core mission of NH-INBRE is to build those relationships. That's why faculty like Bergeron who are beginning to build their labs are paired with mentors at DMS and UNH who study similar topics. For example, Bergeron, who studies a kind of bacteria that lives in the mouth and adheres to oral cavities, is working with DMS microbiologist Dr. George O'Toole.

"The plaque that forms on your teeth is actually a community of organisms," says Bergeron; those communities are called biofilms, which are O'Toole's area of expertise. He advises Bergeron on her research, gives her access to high-tech equipment at Dartmouth, and provides graduate-level research opportunities for her students.

This past summer, for example, NEC student Kyle Argo worked in O'Toole's lab, learning techniques from DMS grad students that he could bring back to Bergeron's lab—"an example of technology transfer," O'Toole points out. Argo even secured one of Dartmouth's hypercompetitive Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships to fund his work in O'Toole's lab. Having a research experience like that is "just required," says O'Toole, for anyone applying to grad school in the biomedical sciences.

Huge role: Charles Wise, the NH-INBRE project manager at DMS, agrees with O'Toole. He points to Jeff Tretheway, a 2011 Keene State graduate. Tretheway worked in the NH-INBRE lab of Dr. Loren Launen, an associate professor at Keene State. The experience "played a huge role" in his acceptance to a Ph.D. program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, says Wise. Tretheway also transferred the knowledge he gathered about applying to graduate schools to other students, giving a recent presentation with Taylor.

"We're bringing them up to the plate so they can play," Wise says.

Another form of technology transfer via NH-INBRE involves the administration and management of federal grants. "Most of these schools have never had federal money before," says Taylor. "There's a lot of rules when you accept federal money," he adds, which is why schools like Dartmouth usually have an office with grant managers to ensure that the money is used and accounted for properly.

The most important word in grants administration is "compliance," says Kathleen Carroll, senior development officer at Colby-Sawyer College. That's one of the lessons she's learned in her role as the person who oversees the NH-INBRE funds that flow to Colby-Sawyer. "There is so much for me to learn in this role," says Carroll.

Wise says Carroll is "one of the success stories. Ultimately I see somebody like Kathy Carroll helping her faculty five years from now administer grants. . . . That's what we want to see."

It's not clear if the NH-INBRE funding will continue after the five-year grant is up, but Taylor believes it will have a lasting impact even so.

Play: By getting smaller institutions involved in federally funded research, he says, "we're bringing them up to the plate so they can play. And if they play well . . . They're going to have [the] experience . . . [to] compete on a national level."

And that will benefit all the NH-INBRE institutions, by improving the quality of undergraduate science education in New Hampshire and creating a stronger pool of in-state applicants for the graduate programs at UNH and Dartmouth.

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