Seniors Gain Hands-on Research Experience in Biotechnology Degree Program

Three biotech students

The biotech lab at KU Edwards Campus (KUEC) is a bustling place. And on any given day you will definitely find a team of three women working diligently on their senior capstone research projects. Taking markedly different paths in their college journey, all found their way to the undergraduate biotechnology degree supported by the Johnson County Education Research Triangle (JCERT). As a biotech cohort, these friends and coworkers are each focused on unique research projects and have divergent plans for what they’d like to do after graduation. Meet Bridget Ruhme, Olive Njoroge, and Kaitlyn Sy.

Bridget Ruhme Applies Biotech Learnings to the Fashion Industry 
Ruhme came to the University of Kansas KU from Minnesota to pursue a pharmacy degree. During her junior year, as classes became more specifically pharmacy-related, she realized she was not following her passion. She looked for research-based degree options within KU and discovered the biotechnology program at the KU Edwards Campus. 

“This is definitely a hands-on degree and it’s preparing us for the real world so we are ready to work in a variety of industries,” Ruhme said. “I wouldn’t have gotten this level of experience without the biotech program.” 

Last summer, Ruhme completed an internship at ICON, a global contract research organization specializing in drug development and clinical research. ICON is a corporate partner with KU’s biotech program. She gained valuable insights from the experience and plans to apply her learnings to the fashion industry by researching ways to make clothing production more sustainable and with less environmental pollution. 

“There are a lot of heavy metals and chemicals used in the clothes-dyeing process that can ultimately result in contamination of water sources, both here and abroad,” she said.

Through her capstone project, Ruhme is engineering a pigment from beets that could be used as a dye for clothing, and she’s looking at various plant-based mordants or fixatives to set the color on fabrics and reduce fading. Ruhme jokes that her capstone project was “inspired by beets.” 

After graduation, she hopes to continue her work with a job in the fashion industry and is already reaching out to some of the pioneers in the field of sustainable textiles about potential business opportunities. 

Olive Njoroge Researches New Therapeutic Treatments for Wound Healing
After completing her associate degree at Johnson County Community College (JCCC), Njoroge considered many options for her bachelor’s degree. After speaking with a KUEC advisor and reading past students’ capstone research projects, she joined the biotech program and has thrived. 

“The program is very hands-on and translationally focused,” Njoroge said. “We get the opportunity to design, build, and run our own experiments."

Njoroge’s research project focuses on understanding the role collagen-producing fibroblasts play in the wound-healing process. Specifically, she’s seeking to better understand how excess collagen production within the skin might lead to keloid scar formation. The findings could uncover information to lay the foundation for future therapeutic treatments that prevent keloid scar formation. After graduation, Njoroge wants to work for one of the area’s biotech/research firms and plans to pursue a master’s degree in the future.

Kaitlyn Sy Studies Cancer; Chooses Biotech as Path to Medical School
Sy grew up in the Kansas City area and began her undergraduate studies at JCCC at the age of 16. When she transferred to KUEC to pursue a degree in biotechnology, she knew it was an unconventional path to her ultimate goal: medical school. 

“Most pre-med students take the biology, biochemistry or microbiology route, and most KUEC biotech graduates usually find jobs in the industry or proceed to grad school, but not typically med school,” Sy said. “But I have found the KUEC biotech program is a great pre-med major.”

Sy echoes her co-eds’ appreciation for the program’s hands-on experience that starts on day one as well as the autonomy she has in the lab. 

“I am free to use the materials and equipment I need to execute experiments I design,” Sy said. “My professors are always available if I have questions, but getting to design my own approaches to answering research questions and troubleshooting problems has been central to my growth as an emerging scientist.”

Sy’s capstone research looks at the interactions between cancer and the immune system. Normally, the immune system detects abnormal cells and destroys them, but somehow cancer manages to escape detection. The goal of Sy’s project is to understand one of the mechanisms that cancer exploits – shifting its metabolism and secreting lactic acid – to hide from the immune system. 

“The study findings may provide insights into future approaches to cancer treatment and ultimately lead to better outcomes for cancer patients,” Sy said. 

She will be heading to medical school at KU after graduation, and is most interested in becoming a neuro-oncologist. “I would love to work at an academic medical center where I can treat patients, collaborate with scientists on research and be part of educating the next generation of medical professionals.”

According to Randy Logan, biotech program director, capstone projects play an important role in developing students’ ability to function autonomously and effectively in a research laboratory. 

“Companies like Hill’s Pet Nutrition, ICON, Catalent, Likarda, and Boehringer Ingelheim have been instrumental in helping our faculty pilot real-world capstone research,” Logan said.  The curriculum is designed to prepare students for their careers by building technical competencies that align with the talent needs of bioscience companies. As a result, the program has cultivated a reputation as being the “go-to place for top-notch technical talent.” 

Jack Treml, assistant program director, added, “We ask a lot of our students. They put in extra hours to complete their research projects in a short timeframe. We’re proud to see what they are able to accomplish.”

All three students recently presented their capstone projects at KUEC’s annual Biotech Day – an annual event connecting future and current students with faculty, exploring biotech career opportunities and showcasing the campus’ biotech lab. More than 200 high school students attended the 2024 event. 

“I was proud of myself and my classmates,” Njoroge said. “We’d spent a whole semester reading literature, planning out experimental designs and working with our professors to encapsulate our research projects into our Biotech Day presentations.”

“I was glad for the opportunity to share a sneak peek into what the biotechnology degree program has to offer,” said Ruhme.

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