April 14-20, 2000
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Graduate Student Research

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Graduate Student Research

They make up almost a quarter of the student body. It may take them five to 10 years to finish their degrees, and taking classes is only part of the requirement. Research and/or teaching make not only their education, but their contributions to the University and to society unique. They are graduate students, numbering about 4,000, not including the 1,600 in law and medicine. Their work, however, doesn't often get attention, since it may not be ready for prime time or headlines. They put in long hours with relatively low pay, although the amount of support varies widely among disciplines. Still, they are gaining the experience that may lead to tomorrow's breakthroughs. There are few platforms to show their work-in-progress. The Arts & Sciences Graduate Student Council coordinated the first Graduate Research Exhibition April 10 and 11 to provide a forum for graduate students from all disciplines to present their work. Co-sponsored by the Graduate Enrolled Student and Fellowship Office, the exhibition also awarded the top four with $500 first prizes. This week and next, Inside UVA will highlight some of their efforts. We present here a sample -- albeit random -- of the range of research and scholarship graduate students are conducting, some ground-breaking, some innovative in idea or approach.

Graduate students awarded for research

LeeAnn Swanegan: Putting antibiotic- resistant bacteria to work killing cancer

By Anne Bromley

Stephanie Gross
LeeAnn Swanegan, a fourth-year doctoral student in biochemistry and molecular genetics, is studying how a compound made by antibiotic-resistant bacteria and injected into prostate cancer cells causes the cells to die.

LeeAnn Swanegan's work in health care has ranged from seeing patients with the Australian Royal Flying Doctors Association to researching cell processes in a U.Va. biochemistry lab.

A Missouri native, Swanegan spent part of her senior undergraduate year abroad at the University of Adelaide, helping physicians deliver primary care to Aboriginal people in remote areas accessible only via airplane -- hence the name "flying doctors." She has traded that kind of adventure for another: delving into cancer research. She is investigating a potential new kind of chemotherapy using a compound produced by antibiotic-resistant bacteria that causes cells to die -- only diseased cells, not healthy ones.

"I like the interdisciplinary approach here, the collaboration," said Swanegan, about why she chose U.Va. "This is basic science that is translational research," meaning the science can be readily put to work on a human health problem.

Swanegan, who hopes to complete her Ph.D. by May 2001, works with Dr. Joel Hockensmith, whose lab in the School of Medicine's Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics looks at interactions between DNA and cell proteins. Swanegan's research builds on a discovery made by Rohini Muthusewami, a previous graduate student now working at the University of Colorado. Muthuswami found that some bacteria make an enzyme that changes the common antibiotic, kanamycin, into a compound harmless to the bacteria but surprisingly toxic to a protein found in rapidly dividing mammalian cells. Several patents are pending for using the method of applying the compound to a variety of diseases, including malaria and cancer.

When incubated with prostate cancer cells, the compound, phosphokanamycin, causes the cells to die by inhibiting the action of a protein that acts as "as molecular motor in the nucleus of mammalian cells," said Swanegan, who's also the vice president of the Graduate Biosciences Society at U.Va. Swanegan and her colleagues have injected the compound into mice carrying solid human prostate tumors. The compound affects the solid tumor but not the surrounding normal cells. So far, the modified kanamycin has yielded complete tumor remission in 25 percent of the mice. Researchers don't understand at this point why the compound affects some cells and not others.

"My graduate thesis consists of studying what happens to the cells as they die. In the future we hope to develop this compound into a new chemotherapy that can be used to treat cancer," she said. Currently, the compound is delivered by direct injection into the tumor mass but applications are being developed to treat a wide variety of cancer types. "These studies highlight the importance of basic biochemical research and how it can be employed for therapeutic gain," said Swanegan, who has applied to the National Cancer Center and the National Institutes of Health for a post-doctoral fellowship.

Sociology students will have stage to themselves at regional meeting

From ice caps to deserts, Mikesell's research environs have been extreme

Tuttle studies safe schools, effects of building on students' learning

Berlin serves as laboratory for U.Va. graduate architecture students

Wheatley questions the nature of intention in human behavior



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