Two Biology Students Complete UH-HEART Summer Program

Program Encourages STEM Graduate Study, Careers in Cardiovascular Research and Medicine

This summer, two College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics students completed the University of Houston-Houston Experience for Advancing Research and Training (UH-HEART) program.

Saher Khan
Saher Khan, a biology major, uses a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine as part of her work on identifying associations between cardiac dysfunction and impaired lysosomal signaling.

Saher Khan and Omar Harb were two of the five students selected for UH-HEART. The program is a 10-week, hands-on laboratory experiential and career exploration initiative focusing on cardiovascular research.

Khan is a biology major, and Harb graduated in spring 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematical biology.

“Our American Heart Association-funded UH-HEART program was very successful,” said University of Houston College of Pharmacy Professor Bradley K. McConnell, Ph.D., FAHA, FCVS, who served as UH-HEART program director and one of its faculty mentors. “We integrated educational workshops with cardiovascular research experiences to enable our students to be better prepared for graduate school as well as future careers in cardiovascular health professions such as medicine, pharmacy, nursing, and public health.”

Omar Harb
Omar Harb, a spring 2022 mathematical biology graduate, pipettes a sample as part of his project on 3D bioprinting of cardiac cell.

At the “Heart” of Research

During the program, participants assisted in UH faculty-led experiments aimed at better understanding topics ranging from 3D bioprinting of cardiac cells and discovering immunogenic neopeptides from chimeric RNAs to develop vaccines. Hands-on laboratory research activities included cell culture, cell transfections, protein and gene expression and microscopy.

Students presented their research projects at the “2022 End-of-Program Student Presentations” along with the Coogs in Cancer Research (CiCR) undergraduate students on Aug. 5, and were each awarded a certificate of achievement.

“This year, we collaborated with CiCR to organize an all-day event for the students to give an oral presentation,” said Tho Tran, Ph.D., research assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and UH-HEART assistant program director. “Eleven students presented, and they were all very well done. I am so proud to see their progress over the summer.”

Preethi Gunarante, Moores Professor of biology and chemistry, served as a program faculty mentor.

Engaging in Future Career Development

The program not only engaged participants in discussions with their mentors, program directors, research leadership and graduate students about their research work, but also in career planning and development. UH-HEART mentors and guest speakers lead workshops on a variety of topics, ranging from research ethics to mental health and applying to graduate programs.

Participants also attended the American Heart Association Basic Cardiovascular Sciences Scientific Sessions 2022 in Chicago.

Open to rising juniors, seniors and immediate graduates, the second-year cohort of UH-HEART participants included four students from UH and one from the University of Texas at Austin. UH-HEART fellows were eligible for a $6,000 stipend upon completion of the program, with additional funding available to attend a national research conference.

Khan conducted research on identifying associations between cardiac dysfunction and impaired lysosomal signaling. Harb’s project focused on 3D bioprinting of cardiac cells.

“Through this program, I have not only been able to learn several lab techniques, but I have also gained an appreciation for the challenges and excitement associated with a career in research,” said Khan.

Support through Collaboration

UH-HEART is supported by a three-year, $165,000 American Heart Association Institutional Award for Undergraduate Student Training grant. The program is housed within the UH Drug Discovery Institute, which fosters transdisciplinary collaborations between faculty from UH colleges of Engineering, Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Medicine, NSM, Optometry, Pharmacy and Technology.

Led by McConnell and Tran, the UH-HEART program was formed through a collaborative effort by the colleges of Engineering, NSM and Pharmacy.

- Excerpted from article by the UH College of Pharmacy