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Undergraduate Researchers

Dalton Hughes, Chemical Engineering

“Signaling Response of Neuronal Cells to 3D Tissue Scaffolds”

Neurons grow and develop in the three-dimensional (3D) environment of the developing embryo. Previous work from our group has demonstrated that culturing embryonic neurons in 3D matrices allows the cells to respond in a way that more closely resembles natural development than traditional 2D culture. Cells interact with their extracellular matrix and sense the dimensionality of their surroundings via integrin receptors on the cell surface that bind to matrix molecules, initiate intracellular signaling cascades and affect changes in cell shape and function. My work focuses on elucidating the signaling events that regulate these changes in cell response. We hypothesize that 3D environments impose changes in matrix-ligand organization and alter neuronal behavior by modulating β1-integrin cytoskeleton signaling. To test this hypothesis we culture PC12 cells, a neuronal cell model, on 2D and within 3D collagen substrates and probe the signaling response by inhibiting several key signaling molecules involved in regulating neuron morphology: β1-integrin, Focal Adhesion Kinase (FAK), and an activated form of FAK that is phosphorylated at tyrosine 397. Immunocytochemistry techniques and fluorescent microscopy will be used to analyze the effect of inhibiting these signalingN molecules on neuronal behavior. The results of this experiment will identify the key signaling mechanisms in 3D neuronal culture and provide a biological basis for testing new biomaterial-based therapeutics.

How did you find a mentor and decide on a project? How did you know this was the project you wanted to do?

Around the time I was entering UMBC as a freshman, I was deeply interested in the field of regenerative medicine. I came across Dr. Leach’s research on the Chemical Engineering Department website and immediately started reading publications and reviews. I found every single research topic interesting and after meeting with Dr. Leach, we found the perfect project.

How much time do you/will you put into this research/creative work?

 I plan to spend 8 – 12 hours a week conducting my research.

What academic background did you have before you started on this research?

 My experience in several summer research internships as well as knowledge from my science courses definitely helped in understanding my research project.

How did you learn about applying for the Undergraduate Research Award? Was the application hard?

 Both Dr. Leach and my graduate student mentor encouraged me to apply. The application was very straightforward and was good practice in scientific writing.

What has been the hardest part about your research? 

 As with all research experiences, it is easy to get caught up in all the experiments and freak out when you hit a roadblock. However, this is easily managed by taking two seconds to realize that everyone goes through some sort of frustration in research.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?

 Research is exciting. No matter what your interests or major may be, there is always a question that needs an answer. If a student has the opportunity to conduct research, they should give it a shot.


What are your career goals?

 I plan to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering and conduct research in either an industrial or academic setting.