Investigating false claims touting cures for Crohn’s disease on TikTok. Unlocking the mystery of fatty acid metabolism in the pathogen that causes African sleeping sickness. Determining the impact of low-dose radiation on aortic smooth muscle cells. Learning whether at-home wash methods reduce microbial contamination levels in pre-sliced mushrooms. Clemson University scientists are studying a wide variety of subjects.
But only some of those scientists are faculty members, postdoctoral fellows or graduate students.
Some are undergraduate students in the Clemson University College of Science. Undergraduate research is a key component of the College’s signature undergraduate science experience.
“We can talk about how discoveries are made. We can talk about how we know what we know. But for students to discover new things for themselves or be a part of the knowledge discovery process is the next level above what we can do in the classroom,” said Kim Paul, associate professor in the Department of Genetics and Biochemistry.
Senior biochemistry major Krishna Patel has worked in Chemistry Professor Julia Brumaghim’s lab for two and a half years studying polyphenols, a group of compounds naturally found in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, tea, red wine and dark chocolate. Polyphenols act as antioxidants that neutralize harmful free radicals that would otherwise damage cells and increase the risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Patel is designing, testing and implementing an assay to test how various polyphenols protect deoxyribose and DNA from degradation.
“Research is a great way to think about concepts learned in class and apply them to the real world,” said Patel, who presented her project results at the national American Chemical Society meeting in March.
Patel attended the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics in high school and conducted research before starting college. The Governor’s School requires students to conduct research the summer between their junior and senior years. Patel worked in a lab at the University of South Carolina, purifying a gene in yeast.
“I want to incorporate research in some way in the field,” said Patel, who is taking a gap year before starting medical school. “My research has complex big names that the scientific community understands, but the public may not. At the ACS conference, I saw how to make my information more understandable to people in other fields. As a doctor, I’ll have to do the same to explain symptoms and treatments.”
Extended research opportunities
Many undergraduate research opportunities come through Creative Inquiry, a program created in 2006 to provide early and extended research opportunities to many students, including disciplines that typically had offered only a few undergraduate research opportunities. Before that, undergraduate research opportunities at Clemson were limited, primarily to students in STEM disciplines researching in a faculty lab for a semester during their senior year or the summer. Because few undergraduate research opportunities were available, the programs were highly selective in students they would accept.
With CI, students work in teams and can start as early as their first year. The faculty encourage the students to stay in their groups and project for at least one year. Some students take part in multiple CI projects during their undergraduate careers.
Now, over 4,500 students take part in around 400 projects each year.
“Undergraduate research gives students — in any discipline — a window into the questions that are posed to professionals in their chosen fields. This applies whether the student is in STEM, humanities, social sciences or any discipline. Students in multidisciplinary projects gain appreciation for the need to involve different minds to solve many problems,” said Barbara Speziale, director of the CI program.
Speziale continued, “I’ve noted that students sometimes don’t quite believe that what they learn from textbooks applies to the real world. Research helps them to see the connections.”
Taking part in undergraduate research can help students decide what they want to do in their future careers.
“A research career is a special commitment,” Speziale said. “I recall a time, many years ago, when I was working in a lab alongside an undergrad whose task at the time was to obtain dry weight for many plant samples. Her comment was, ‘I never realized that research could be so tedious.’ Inexperienced students may believe that research is all ‘aha’ moments. It is healthy for them to understand the amount of labor that goes into the data for a single graph, and to consider what they are willing to do in their careers.”
If they ultimately decide research is not for them, they still develop analytical and “soft” skills they’ll use throughout their careers.
During COVID, senior biological sciences major Natalia Leigh Diaz wanted to research Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that causes chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Diaz found a lot of misinformation on social media.
“I wanted to do an analysis based on what the misinformation was and why it was being promoted,” said Diaz, who has Crohn’s disease.
What she found was a lot of posts on heavy metal toxicity and detoxification.
“Heavy metal toxicity is extremely rare in the United States, but the top posts I analyzed said it was extremely common and could be caused by things like cooking utensils, braces, tea, seafood, pesticides, jewelry, and the list goes on. It’s scary to think about. One big source that received a lot of attention said chemicals are actually falling out of the sky,” said Diaz, who is also minoring in chemistry and microbiology.
Diaz said the social media posts were trying to sell a product the posters claimed cured autoimmune conditions and other diseases such as cancer, autism, bipolar disorder, eczema and Alzheimer’s disease.
“People are sick, and they see these and say, ‘Wow, I’m experiencing that. Let me try this product.’ They’re hoping to find a cure. These are vulnerable people looking for ways to solve their symptoms, and they’re being misled by misinformation,” she said.
Junior biochemistry major Kate McAllister researched #leakygut on TikTok. She found 22 of 23 accounts posting with that hashtag had a financial conflict of interest, and seven were influencers or content creators who didn’t have any medical background. She learned to identify rhetoric, scare tactics and citation of fake experts.
McAllister said her pseudoscience research was a break from her organic chemistry and biochemistry classes.
“I think TikTok is interesting. I think gut health is interesting. It just shows you a whole different side of the world. It also shows how scientists and TikTok can combine,” she said. “You get to make the research your own. It’s a way to connect everything you’re learning to the real world.”
Elliot Ennis, a senior lecturer in chemistry and adviser to the pseudoscience CI projects, said the research sharpens students’ soft skills and ability to communicate.
“I wish I had something like this when I was their age,” Ennis said.
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