Austin Shull, an assistant professor of biology at Presbyterian College in Clinton, was one of 10 professors in South Carolina to be awarded a South Carolina IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research 2019 Developmental Research Project Program award in the amount of $50,000.
Shull started his research project about four years ago, in collaboration with researchers at the Medical College of Georgia and one at the University of Lyon in France. His research explores cancer genomics, to understand differences between aggressive and non-aggressive breast cancers.
How a Small Liberal Arts College Does Undergraduate Research at This Scale
Presbyterian College is part of a network—the South Carolina IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (SC INBRE)—of institutions that collaborate to promote their research and training programs and provide students with opportunities for hands-on research training. INBRE was established by the National Institutes of Health.
In addition to several smaller undergraduate institutions, the SC INBRE network includes comprehensive research universities in the state: Clemson, University of South Carolina, and the Medical University of South Carolina.This grant initiative helps increase biomedical research in South Carolina.
Funding is provided for faculty members at institutions within the network who pursue biomedical research and it provides funding to develop students, to potentially pursue careers in biomedical research. It also enables participants to publish their research in peer review journals and can help them compete for even larger grants available through the National Institutes of Health.
Inclusion of Others
“This past summer, I had three of our students here at PC work with me on this research,” Shull said. “One is a rising senior and two are rising juniors. They got to learn a lot about genome analysis and skills needed to be successful in a biomedical research lab. Students have also been able to present their work at national meetings.”
Much of what is being accomplished at independent undergraduate institutions such as Presbyterian College, is in part, Shull said, because of the “explosion and accessibility of genomic information.”
Shull’s Research and Contribution
In his research, Shull looks at the genetic material in various breast cancers to better understand their structure, function and how they evolve and work.
“You look at what the DNA of a breast cancer tumor is and how that differs from the body’s normal DNA,” Shull explained. “Genetic abnormalities can provide clues about how normal tissue turns into a cancer. Normal cells take on genetic change that make them into a cancer.
To model aggressive and non-aggressive breast cancers, Shull said his research uses laboratory grown cell lines that can be grown in petri dishes. He also noted that patients who reflected the more aggressive cancer model had an earlier age of diagnosis and they were more likely to relapse. In addition, Shull said researchers are examining a gene involved with inflammation that appears to be altered in the aggressive cancer cells.
Shull, 30, is a 2011 graduate from Presbyterian College with a degree in biology and he has been part of the faculty at his undergraduate alma mater for four years. He’s currently teaching two introductory biology courses and working on his research.