Toombs writes NASA grant, conducts biomolecular research with professor

Release Date: 7/1/2013

University of the Ozarks senior Emily Toombs and Professor of Biology Dr. Sean Coleman are teaming up this summer to conduct biomolecular research, which is being funded by a grant from NASA that Toombs wrote herself.

Emily Toombs

Emily Toombs, a senior biology major, is working on research this summer with her Ozarks professor, Dr. Sean Coleman.

Toombs, a biology major from Lamar, Ark., who will begin her final year at Ozarks in the fall, knew that in order to have access to the best graduate programs, she needed to have solid experience in her chosen interest: cell, molecular and genetics.

"This project got started when I was looking for an internship this summer," Toombs said. "Dr. Coleman pulled me into his office, and told me that if I was willing to write up a grant that he would help me get started on a project this summer. So, I wrote an Arkansas Space Grant Consortium grant and was really happy when they told me that it was accepted."

The Arkansas Space Grant Consortium works with NASA to actively involve the state of Arkansas in NASA-related research. Once Toombs had secured funding, she and Coleman began planning their summer.

"We are looking at the ability of cells to deal with oxidative stress," Coleman said. "Oxidative stress can damage cell biomolecules and lead to diseases including certain cancers, so the cells ability to detoxify the oxidants is extremely important.  We are studying the regulated production of subset of enzymes in the glutathione system - glutathione-S transferase - that is found across all eukaryotic species."

As part of their project, Toombs and Coleman took a trip to Coleman's alma mater, the University of Iowa, where Toombs was able to experience a large research university lab environment as well as meet with graduate students and faculty.

"I wanted Emily to experience what a research university's laboratory environment looked like," Coleman said. "She spent time in at least three labs and visited with at least six or seven principle investigators in a variety of departments in the College of Medicine and in Biology.  I hoped she would have a better understanding of what being a graduate student entailed, get excited about cutting edge research, and acquire a confidence about her own skills and abilities."

Toombs couldn't be more appreciative of the efforts her professor is taking to ensure her success.

"From this experience I have gained so much," she said. "Dr. Coleman has really taken time out of his summer to help me understand the research we are doing and give me opportunities to succeed in the future. I am so thankful for all that he has done for me."

"I feel that my education at Ozarks, and particularly this experience, has given me the opportunity to grow as a person while also exploring my chosen field more in depth. Most summer internships involve you going and joining a project that you had no help planning or writing the grant for. I have experience now doing both of those things."

For Coleman, however, being able to watch his students grow into their success is just a part of being a professor at Ozarks.

"My two favorite things about being a college professor are teaching in the classroom and being involved with student learning outside the classroom," he said. "Teaching research skills and techniques to students is an important and enjoyable part of that teaching outside the classroom.  It was an experience I, thankfully, had when I was an undergraduate and it is why I am here doing what I do.  It is all part of what I think Ozarks does best: mentoring students beyond teaching them in the classroom.  It gives our students an advantage when they leave here. Larger universities cannot do this to the level we can and other colleges do not offer it in the way we do."

"Not many undergraduate students can say that they wrote a $7,500 grant and had it funded for a research project and stipend; Emily has a lot to be proud of. She has been working with me since her freshman year just for the experience and preparation with no funding. It has culminated with this opportunity for her, and she has taken full advantage of it. I am proud of her.  I hope she gets a lot out of the experience and helps inspire the next group of students to follow in her footsteps," he said.