The risk and reward of innovative student-faculty research
Hamilton, an assistant professor of biology, wants his students to understand that some failure is expected when you are attempting to answer biological questions in new and innovative ways.
“Science is a process of trying to create. It’s not just following a formula where you plug something in and the correct answer appears,” he said. “We are blazing new trails so it’s riddled with potholes and problems, but that’s also the joy and the excitement of working with students.”
Since joining the IC faculty in 2016, Hamilton has completed student-faculty research with 11 students during the summer months. It’s familiar territory for him. Hamilton’s own love of research was ignited as an IC undergraduate working with a faculty member on research that explored the ability of an octopus to regenerate arms. Today Hamilton’s work attempts to answer similar questions by studying lens regeneration in the eyes of tadpoles. His focus builds on his graduate school studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign working with expert Jonathan Henry, a professor of cell and developmental biology.
Hamilton says that we are all familiar with the idea of regeneration — it’s what happens when our outer layer of skin is wounded and repairs itself. Unlike our skin, which relies on existing skin cells left behind to regenerate replacement skin cells, lens regeneration in tadpoles is an example of “de novo” regeneration, meaning the new lens cells are generated even if there are no remaining lens cells. In other words, even if the lens is completely removed from a tadpole’s eye, it will still come back from a non-lens cell source. This type of regeneration is not common, so understanding the process may contribute to a broader story about how the cells of the body function.
“It's a question of how and why, and those are really molecular questions,” says Hamilton. “That is where my research is focused — what are the mechanisms that allow one cell type to become another cell type.”
Donors have recognized the value of student-faculty research like this with several funds that support innovative research at Illinois College. Students working in Hamilton’s lab have received support from the Warren and Marcia Billhartz Experiential Learning Fund through the Summer Student Researchers Program, the Tillery Student-Faculty Collaboration Fund and the Stephen M. Tillery '72 Research Fund for Outstanding Students. Donor funds have also supported the cost of traveling to conferences to present findings among other scholars and professionals in the field.
The investment in student-faculty research benefits students on many levels. Hamilton’s lab not only empowers students to think and communicate scientifically, the experience also gives students a chance to practice technical skills — the kind that are helpful for students eager to launch careers in competitive fields like medicine.
Students certainly have a transformative learning experience.
"They get a hands-on scientific experience and learn micro-surgical techniques,” said Hamilton. “They are learning how to remove the lens out of the eye of a tadpole. It’s very small and all the work is done by hand under a microscope. They all struggle with it at first, but then learn how to quiet their hands and do this high-dexterity work.”
While there is a natural link between the technical aspects of student-faculty research and a career in medicine, there are also less obvious advantages.
“The biggest lesson I took away from conducting research with Dr. Hamilton and working in his lab is to be patient,” said Sean Kisch ’18, who spent a summer and several semesters working in Hamilton’s lab.
Kisch is now a second-year student at the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University Chicago and hopes to go into a surgical residency program after he graduates. He said the work he completed with Hamilton gave him a deeper understanding of his coursework at IC, and it taught him to embrace failure as part of the learning process.
Ultimately, Kisch’s determination paid off — he was able to answer some molecular questions about the genes of tadpoles. He presented his work at the Illinois State Academy of Science and was recognized with an award. Kisch believes his research experience has had a meaningful impact on his success so far in medical school, helping him develop skills that are useful for a healthcare provider.
“Working with people to better their health requires a lot of patience,” Kisch said. “That and the ability to communicate is essential to ensure they receive the best medical care possible.”
While Illinois College current student Anna Rathgeb ’20 was always familiar with Illinois College growing up — her parents are both IC alumni — it was the opportunities for student-faculty research at IC, which weren’t as readily available for undergraduates at larger schools, that ultimately convinced her to enroll.
I felt that I could get more out of my undergraduate experience at IC than at other places. The one-on-one connection I felt with professors was very important.
Rathgeb, who is now applying to veterinary schools, is collaborating with Hamilton to see how the developing lungs of tadpoles respond to damage. It’s an area that few have previously studied.
“Dr. Hamilton described the project as high risk and high reward,” Rathgeb said. “It came with a lot of failures and difficulties, but he reminds me that I am one of the only ones in the country or world who is focusing on this. I only have a year left, but I like the idea that other students can build on my work. And having the potential to discover something new is really cool.”
As someone who welcomes the challenges of innovation, Hamilton is excited about the future of student-faculty at Illinois College. He is expanding studies to explore why tadpoles lose the ability to naturally regenerate the lens after metamorphosis. He says there are many questions within the bigger idea of lens regeneration.
To tackle some of these new challenges, Hamilton looks forward to welcoming students with a wide range of backgrounds into his lab. IC’s new minor in computational biology, which applies the concepts of computer science to answer biological questions, is one area of particular interest. The new program addresses one of the challenges of his research: trying to decode cells with a vast number of different genes and proteins that are expressed. Hamilton notes that today's technology and computing power allows biologists to look at old questions in new ways.
We are rethinking what is possible and how to keep our students up to date in a discipline that is constantly changing.
“A liberal arts education was built from subjects that were deemed critical for students to study to be productive and free-thinking members of society. I think that computer science is now among them,” he added.
IC’s student-centered community has long fostered powerful collaboration between faculty in different departments and between students and faculty. For professors like Hamilton, seeing his students overcome the inevitable challenges of working in the lab makes the process even more rewarding.
“Sometimes progress can feel slow, but I think it’s great when students have struggled with something and then are able to overcome it and achieve something meaningful working together,” Hamilton said. “That makes it all worth it in the end for me.”
For Hamilton’s students, working through this process can be equally as valuable as they launch their professional careers.
“I am grateful for my experience in his lab,” Kisch said. “Without Dr. Hamilton’s guidance I don’t think I would be where I am today.”
For more information about student-faculty research at Illinois College, visit www.ic.edu/research.