MIRA Program provides research opportunities for Honors College undergraduates

Sarah De Santos and Professor Michael Skinner work together in the laboratory.
Sarah De Santos and Professor Michael Skinner work together in the laboratory.

A National Institutes of Health program is providing Washington State University Honors College students with undergraduate research opportunities that have led to publication in high-impact research journals. 

The Motivating Innovation and Research Achievement (MIRA) program is available to Honors College students from underrepresented groups who are planning to major in biomedical science and engineering fields.  

One of the students taking part is Sarah De Santos, who dreamed of becoming a pediatrician since she was 5. As college approached, her interests broadened.

“I wanted to find a way to be a little more proactive and thought, ‘maybe I’ll involve myself in research,’” said De Santos, a genetics and cell biology major.

MIRA and the Honors College provided the perfect solution. MIRA offers financial support for up to four years of tuition, an initial summer bridge program, and lab rotations and summer research opportunities. Students also attend a national scientific meeting.

De Santos’ interests are genetics and epigenetics, so she reached out to WSU Eastlick Distinguished Professor of Biological Science Michael Skinner, the founding director of the Center for Reproductive Biology. When he learned Sarah was an honors student who aspired to be an MD and potentially a PhD, he knew she’d be a good fit for his lab.

“Finding those people early in their careers is not common,” he said.

Now an Honors College sophomore, De Santos’ work in the Skinner Lab has led to her first research publication. She is third co-author of an article in Environmental Epigenetics examining the effect of multiple-generation exposure to toxicants in rodents and the cumulative effect on health.

“While there was a slight increase with other diseases, like kidney disease, ovarian disease, different cysts, obesity was the one disease that you could basically track a substantial increase in as the generations progressed,” De Santos said of the 10-year study, which culminated a year and a half after she joined the lab.

The study is novel in its transgenerational approach. “We bred them out pretty far and we saw how, not the first or second generation after exposure, but their descendants in subsequent generations showed an increase in obesity and epigenetic markers for that,” De Santos said of the test subjects.

Said Skinner, “Sarah played a significant role in helping us finish up all of the pathology over the last year and a half…summarizing a lot of the data, putting things together.”  

De Santos credits Skinner for having an impact on her student journey.

“Coming into college I was very focused on just the MD track…nothing else mattered,” she said. Having previously shadowed doctors, she had seen the clinical side of medicine. Discussions with Skinner helped her realize that conducting research would allow her to help patients by identifying problems and potentially designing solutions as well.

“That helped me get a better understanding of what Dr. Skinner calls preventative medicine… instead of, as a physician, just reacting to a problem, we identify the problem and are already researching solutions for it,” she said.

De Santos is grateful for her experiences through the MIRA/Honors connection.

“It was pretty incredible that I was able to tag along at the tail end of this project and learn all about what we were doing and assist significantly,” she said. “I was very happy about that.”

Read the full story on the Honors College website.

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