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Students get a jump on biomedical research, thanks to Idaho State University-Meridian pharmacy professor

March 18, 2013
ISU Marketing and Communications

Niki Peters peers at the intricate web of ribbon-shaped lines and chains rotating across her computer screen in a pharmacy research laboratory at the Idaho State University-Meridian Health Science Center.

Thanks to a sophisticated molecular visualization program called VMD, Peters is able to construct a movie, simulating in 3D how nicotine binds with protein receptors in the human brain.

It's a pretty heady subject for an advanced college student, let alone a high school junior.  Yet Peters, who attends Boise's Timberline High School and the Treasure Valley Math and Science Center, doesn't miss a beat.

"It's fun," she said.  "I like the fact I can start research here [at ISU] and not wait until I get into college."

Peters, 16, an honor student fluent in Mandarin Chinese, wants to pursue a career in biological research or medical practice. Since December, she has interned two afternoons a week in the research lab of Dr.  Dong "Danny" Xu, an assistant professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences at ISU-Meridian.

Xu, who joined ISU in 2012, created the internship in biomedical research to give high school and college students an opportunity to explore careers in science, technology, engineering and math, commonly referred to as STEM disciplines.

In addition to Peters, Houston Miller, a student from the Meridian Medical Arts Charter School, joined the internship program in February.

 "I like to take students into the lab to spark their interest in STEM subjects," said Xu, noting he enjoys mentoring high-school students and providing them with hands-on experience and career advice.

The unpaid internship provides Peters with a front-row seat in a lab where Xu and his research associates are pursuing a broad range of computational research projects in chemistry, biology, physics and pharmacology.

Xu, who holds a doctorate in computational science from San Diego State University and receives his biomedical research training at the University of California, San Diego, hopes his research in advanced molecular simulation and protein engineering will lead to the discovery of new drugs to treat chemical addictions and mental illnesses, such as depression or schizophrenia.

Xu, who says the student internship is on par with a junior or sophomore level of college biochemistry, is thrilled with the caliber of high school interns from the Treasure Valley.

"They are fast learners. They have a genuine interest in research and science. They are the hope of this country in terms of science and technology," he said.

View Peters' video of nicotinic receptors at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbybD6GHohc .

For more information about the Xu Research Group, visit  http://www.dxulab.com/.




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