Feeding the rats was just the beginning. To get to the bottom of questions about the effects of alcohol consumption on bones, Cyndi Trevisiol learned how to remove the living cells from a femur and a tibia (purchased frozen from a biological supply house). She then removed the minerals — calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, silicon — leaving behind a tube of seemingly lifeless collagen, the bone’s own skeleton, so to speak. She implanted the tube under the skin of a rat and watched something miraculous: On the protein skeleton, new bone started to form. Cells migrated into the area. After only six weeks, the lifeless shell had become a small sample of mature bone.
As a freshman, she learned all that, along with how to feed and care for the rats, in her first summer in OSU’s Skeletal Biology Laboratory.
Under the guidance of OSU professors Russell Turner and Urszula Iwaniec, Trevisiol produced results that led to a paper in Bone, one of the major peer-reviewed journals in the field. “It was hard, and I made mistakes,” she says. “But Russ and Urszula were always so open and willing to listen to my concerns and interests. And tell me where I had made an error in my thinking.”
A Better Idea
In 2006, the graduate of West Albany High School had come to OSU with interests in animals and tissue engineering. So when she saw an application for a research-for-undergraduates program funded by the National Institutes of Health, she decided to apply. “I didn’t know what a big deal that was for me, as a freshman, and when I asked Dr. Greenwood in biochemistry to recommend me, he said, ‘Well . . . . I have a better idea.’” He introduced her to Kevin Ahern, who ran OSU’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute summer research program.
With financial support from the HHMI program, Trevisiol became the first undergraduate in the newly established skeletal biology lab in the College of Health and Human Sciences. “She set the standards for everyone else,” says Iwaniec. “I would present Cyndi with a project, and she would take it from start to finish and make it her own. In a lot of cases, she went beyond it, looking at what was asked of her and finding alternative methods for data collection.”
In that first year, Trevisiol demonstrated that the process in which broken bones repair themselves was impaired in rats fed a diet high in alcohol. Physicians have long known that bones don’t heal well in human alcoholics, but Trevisiol’s research was the first to demonstrate the mechanism that inhibits bone fracture repair.
“Undergraduates,” says Turner, “are capable of far more than simply obtaining a research experience. This is top-notch, first-line research in which undergraduates can make a very meaningful contribution in discovery processes.”
Using mass spectrometry and micro-computed tomography scanning, Trevisiol delved into proteomics, bone mineralization and growth factors. Her contributions led to her being listed as a co-author on three more papers (in Bone, Osteoporosis International and the Journal of Mineral and Bone Research) with Iwaniec, Turner and their colleagues.
“I hope a lot more freshmen get involved in undergraduate research,” she says. “It was valuable for me to start doing research so early in my education. You start out a little unfocused, but if you’re interested in what you’re studying, and you’re committed to learning, all of sudden school will come into focus.
“It’s a really good experience that should be given to more freshmen,” she adds. “For a lot of people I know, if they had gotten into research at the right time, it might have grabbed them.”