The Science and Technology Honors Program at UAB was designed to connect research-minded undergraduates with world-renowned researchers, offering students a head start on their careers and investigators a group of eager assistants. It’s a unique opportunity available nowhere else in Alabama—and as three current students explain, the idea has been an unqualified success.
RESEARCH BUG Aaron Neal (right) is assisting Julian Rayner in his quest to develop a vaccine for malaria.
As a high-school student in Huntsville, Aaron Neal knew he wanted to pursue a career in the sciences, and he was fairly certain he was interested in infectious diseases. But he never suspected that he would soon be spending the summer in the rain forest, working on a vaccine for malaria.
UAB’s reputation in the medical field and its “major focus on undergraduate programs and research” convinced Neal to make the short drive south to Birmingham, and after earning a Chemistry Scholar Fellowship and acceptance into the Science and Technology Honors Program, he was eager to seek out research opportunities.
He found plenty in the lab of UAB infectious disease expert Julian Rayner, Ph.D. Rayner is studying the parasites that cause malaria, one of the world’s most dangerous diseases, which affects more than a half-billion people each year and kills up to 3 million. The ultimate goal of Rayner’s research is to find a vaccine for malaria, and as a member of the lab, Neal has been able to make a significant contribution. He is studying the daughter cells of the malaria-inducing parasite Plasmodium falciparum—in particular the antigen PfMSP6—in order to identify antigens that naturally provoke the immune system to attack and destroy these invaders.
In May, Neal traveled to Iquitos, Peru, to meet malaria in the field, studying the sample-collection process with doctors and other researchers. “I was able to shadow them as they prepared field packs of supplies, visited families, drew blood, documented symptoms, and took the samples to the research lab for further analysis,” Neal says.
He attributes this valuable experience to his involvement in the Science and Technology Honors Program, which helped him understand the fundamentals of research and find a mentor, as well as provided financial support. “It has given me the knowledge and ability to actively work with graduate students and faculty,” he says.
Neal says the program also taught him to “communicate scientifically”—a useful skill considering that he has already documented his research in several papers and presentations. Director Diane Tucker, Ph.D., helped guide him through those challenges and has also been a great support in making life decisions, he says. There are many of those in his future: Neal hopes to pursue a higher degree from Johns Hopkins, Harvard, or Cambridge, but he is also seriously considering UAB’s Medical Scientist Training Program.
Wherever he goes, Neal wants to be a major player in the world of infectious diseases, both in the lab and on the ground. “I would like to travel to the epicenter of outbreaks to help determine the causes of epidemics,” he says, “and prevent their further spread.”