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Stimulus Funds Support Student's Summer Job, Future Dreams

July 2009
Aida Mohammadreza, at Arizona State University, studies throat cancer using a cell manipulation system at her summer research position being supported by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

In the current economic climate, it's a challenge for young people to find any sort of summer job, let alone a job that both expands their minds and helps society.

But, thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), 19 -year-old Aida Mohammadreza and thousands of other science-minded students across the nation are hard at work in jobs that yield far more than a paycheck.

A sophomore majoring in biochemistry at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, Ms. Mohammadreza was thrilled to learn that she had secured an ARRA-supported summer research position at an ASU laboratory that uses genome-based tools to study throat cancer. Besides helping to pay college bills, the student's job meshes well with her dream of a career in biomedicine and her desire to help people with cancer.

Ms. Mohammadreza's great grandfather passed away from throat cancer, an inspiration and motivation for her interest in this research. "I've been told he was very strong throughout his entire life and being diagnosed with cancer was no exception," said Ms. Mohammadreza, who grew up in Salt Lake City, and is the daughter of Iranian immigrants. "Such family history has really influenced me to pursue research that would save lives."

For the past year, Ms. Mohammadreza has worked at the ASU Biodesign Institute's Center for Ecogenomics under the guidance of her mentor Laimonas Kelbauskas, Ph.D. She is able to continue her research there this summer because of an ARRA-funded administrative supplement that was awarded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) to Deirdre Meldrum, Ph.D., the center's director and the dean of ASU's Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering.

"We were delighted to receive the added boost to our research made possible by the ARRA stimulus funding from NHGRI," said Dr Meldrum. "It is impossible to overemphasize the value of the contributions that highly-motivated, talented undergraduates like Aida bring to our efforts."

Nationwide, ARRA funding will support approximately 5,100 research and training positions this summer for high school and college students, as well as science educators.

"If I didn't have this summer research position, I would definitely look for another opportunity in genome research," said Ms. Mohammadreza. "The ARRA funding will allow me to turn my ideas and dreams into a reality."

Ms. Mohammadreza will study Barrett's esophagus, a condition that affects about 1 percent of adults in the United States. In Barrett's esophagus, the cells lining the lower part of the throat, or esophagus, are replaced with cells that appear similar to those that line the intestines. Barrett's esophagus is often found in people who suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease, which occurs when acidic contents from the stomach rise into the esophagus. A small number of people with Barrett's esophagus develop a rare, but particularly deadly, type of throat cancer.

Ms. Mohammadreza's work involves analyzing individual cells to understand the genetic differences between healthy esophageal cells and the cells seen in Barrett's esophagus. Such information is important for understanding the fundamental mechanisms involved in the disease process, which in turn may lead to new or better ways to treat or prevent the condition.

Scientific inquiry seems to come naturally to Ms. Mohammadreza. Back in elementary school, she would play veterinarian with her best friend's dog. Ms. Mohammadreza explained that she would create odd concoctions of anything she deemed healthy, such as eggs, milk, carrots, grape juice, bananas and herbs. But did she feed it to the always-hungry canine? That was too obvious - and too easy, she said. Instead, she'd soak bandages in the murky mixture and cover the unlucky dog from head to tail.

Ms. Mohammadreza balances her love of science with an equally strong love of helping others. Beside her paid work in the lab, she's volunteering this summer at Scottsdale Healthcare Hospital and Chandler Regional Medical Center. She also belongs to several student-run charitable groups, including Habitat for Humanity and Global Medical Brigade.

"One of the aims of genome research is to develop drugs that improve people's quality of life, a goal similar to my own," said Ms. Mohammadreza. "There are many people that are vulnerable to life-threatening diseases and I want to be part of a team that could help them."

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Last Reviewed: March 14, 2014