Two recent Eastern Illinois University graduates were the only Illinois representatives chosen to explain their research to U.S. legislators at the prestigious "Posters on the Hill" event in Washington, D.C., this spring.
The Council of Undergraduate Research received 800 applications, and 60 projects were chosen to showcase the work of undergraduate researchers from across the country to members of Congress and federal grant agencies on April 23-24.
EIU's William Fernandez and Logan Erbacher were joined by EIU faculty members Mary Konkle (chemistry) and Michael A. Menze (biological sciences) to educate lawmakers on their student-faculty research project, "Examining the Role of Estrogen and Oxidative Damage in Alzheimer's Disease." (Biological sciences faculty member Britto P. Nathan was also involved in the study.)
"If there's one thing I could choose not to have, it's Alzheimer's," Fernandez said. "It robs you of everything."
Over time, the human body unintentionally creates side products -- unwanted damaging reactive molecules -- that damage cells. The EIU study looked specifically at the connection between estrogen and cellular damage that results in Alzheimer's.
Fernandez said he was surprised when their research showed just how beneficial the hormone estrogen is due to its healing properties and neuroprotection. "All of our significant results are because of estrogen, which has been really cool," he said.
"Most of the data comes from the students' hands," Menze said. The findings can be used by other scientists in the ongoing quest to determine ways to stop the damage, Konkle said.
Fernandez had already amassed extensive experience presenting at 12 other conferences, but Posters on the Hill was the most beneficial and most enjoyable, he said.
During the Posters on the Hill session, the crowd -- lawmakers, fellow presenters and others -- wandered from table to table to view information on the various studies.
At one point, Fernandez and Erbacher were explaining their research to a very interested U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., when the Congressman was summoned to the stage to be named an Honorary CUR Fellow by the Council on Undergraduate Research for his support of undergraduate research.
Moments later, the two EIU students were shocked to hear Fattah mention their names in his acceptance speech, citing their promising research. Fattah -- the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science -- is heavily involved in Alzheimer's issues and advocates increased funding for research to combat those types of issues.
"He shouted out to us during his acceptance speech," Fernandez said, naming the moment one of his favorite experiences of the trip.
Fernandez and Erbacher also did a lot of networking with students from other universities who were involved in similar research, exchanging contact information that could prove useful as they continue on with their education and enter the workforce.
Serendipitously, a group of about 1,000 members of the Alzheimer's Association happened to be in Washington, D.C., lobbying for increased funding for Alzheimer's research. The students exchanged information with the group.
While in Washington, D.C., Fernandez and Erbacher took every opportunity they could to underscore to legislators the importance of funding undergraduate research, since it is the basis for increased discoveries at the graduate and doctoral levels.
They met with Rep. Shimkus (the representative from Erbacher's home district), as well as staff members from the offices of Rep. Brad Schneider (who represents Fernandes' home district) and Rep. Dick Durbin.
As part of the trip, Fernandez and Erbacher chose some guided excursions, including a trip to the National Institutes of Health. They had just enough time for some sightseeing along the National Mall.
The EIU research was made possible through an interdisciplinary Research in the Sciences (IRIS) Grant funded by the EIU College of Sciences. Konkle, Menze and Nathan have also received internal funding through the President's Fund for Research and Creative Activity and the Council for Faculty Research.
"Eastern has the best resources for internal funding that I've ever seen," Konkle said. That funding allows researchers to get a foothold and prove to other funding sources that the study is worth pursuing.
"You can't get money from external sources if you don't have data," she said.
"We're very appreciative of Eastern Illinois University and everyone involved in guiding us and helping us get there," Erbacher said. "It was all a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Fernandez graduated in May. He's heading to the University of Illinois College of Medicine, with plans to become either a spinal surgeon or neurosurgeon.
Erbacher, who graduated in December, will enroll this fall in graduate school at Purdue University. He plans to obtain a Ph.D. and become a cancer biologist.