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'Where the solutions to today's problems begin': Ferlic Fellows demonstrate depth, breadth of undergraduate research

Christopher Meehan, a biology/environmental science major, discusses his research on Sandhills ecology at the 2017 Ferlic Fellows Research Poster Presentation on Sept. 19, 2017.About halfway through viewing all 14 Creighton University undergraduate research projects launched this summer under their benevolence, Randolph Ferlic, BS’58, MD’61, and Teresa Kolars Ferlic, paused to reflect at what they were seeing.

Here at the Ferlic Research Fellows Poster Presentation were sophomores, juniors and seniors who, having spent 40 hours a week in Creighton laboratories over the course of 10 weeks this summer, had a real-world experience in scientific research of the headiest kind. They were studying cell elasticity, the biodiversity of Nebraska’s unique Sandhills ecology, honeybee behavior, and ways of combating Lyme disease, tuberculosis and the scourge of river blindness in West Africa.

“It’s truly inspiring to see the work, the dedication, that these students have shown,” said Dr. Ferlic who, with Mrs. Ferlic, has sponsored the Ferlic Summer Research Fellowship for Undergraduate Research since 2006. “It’s the best return on our philanthropic gift that we could ask for.”

And the opportunity to become immersed in such research is what continues to land Creighton on national lists of the best colleges for undergraduate research. The Ferlic Fellowships are one way the University’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship (CURAS) ensures every student who wants to take a greater hand in exploring an academic interest has a chance to work with faculty toward those goals.

“Finding out what I’d be able to do at Creighton, as an undergraduate, I was not going to go anywhere else,” said Hannah Swift, a junior chemistry major and Ferlic Summer Fellow who undertook a project with chemistry professor Stephen Gross, PhD, on finding more effective materials for filling dental cavities. “Being able to spend 40 hours a week in a laboratory, doing this kind of research has made me even more passionate about going to dental school and keeping up with the latest research and what’s behind the latest trends.”

Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, addressing the Ferlic Fellows, highlighted the integral role their projects have played not only in an academic sense, but in furthering the University’s Jesuit, Catholic mission, as each project found applications in humanitarian goals.

“The thing I like most about this program is that it is a wonderful example of how research and faith walk hand in hand at Creighton, and they have for more than 100 years,” Fr. Hendrickson said. “Through research, we strive to alleviate pain and suffering, find answers to complex problems confronting us, uncover new knowledge, and ultimately, care for one another and our world more completely.”

For senior physics and mathematics major Anh Vo, an international student from Vietnam, the Ferlic Fellowship and other CURAS funding opportunities have been the only ones he can attain. As an international undergraduate student, securing other forms of funding comes with a host of challenges.

“So to be able to go to CURAS and to the Ferlic grant has been wonderful for me and I’m very grateful,” said Vo, who worked over the summer with Andrew Ekpenyong, PhD, in the Department of Physics, using fractional calculus to model cell viscosity and elasticity.

Even before his Creighton career began, Vo, who hopes to go to graduate school, was knocking at the CURAS door for a chance to work on something, anything, tied to physics and math.

“I really just wanted the feeling of what it’s like in a lab,” he said. “Before I even ended up on campus, I was already talking to CURAS and seeing where I could get in the lab and work with the great faculty we have. The Ferlic Fellowship let me do it full-time for the summer, bringing together what I love to do in math and putting that together with physics. Really, it taught me more about how to be disciplined in the lab, how to handle time in the lab and how to present research to the public.”

Shilpa Nair, a junior biology major, was a relative newcomer to lab research when she earned her Ferlic Fellowship for the summer to work with Anna Selmecki, PhD, in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, studying abnormal chromosome structures called isochromosomes.

With plans to attend medical school, Nair said the chance at engaging in full-time, hands-on research is also an opportunity to learn about the interplay of the laboratory and the clinic.

“It’s hard to find that as an undergraduate, and I’m very excited I got the chance,” she said. “This is a project I can see myself continuing to pursue while I’m in medical school and beyond. The experience to learn in a lab by doing the research was something I remembered when I was looking at Creighton and here I was, getting that exact opportunity.”

Dr. Ferlic, a renowned cardiovascular surgeon and researcher who led the team performing the state’s first heart transplant operation, said the applications of science to real-world problems he found in this year’s Ferlic Research Fellow presentations was exactly what he intended when he and his wife made their gift.

“This is where the solutions to today’s problems begin,” Dr. Ferlic said. “It’s very gratifying to us to see the interest and the number of students who want to go on to do pure science in a graduate setting or take this knowledge further and find applications in the clinic. It gives me great hope to see what this next generation is doing.”

For a full listing of Ferlic Summer Research Fellows and their projects, click here.


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