By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Associate chemistry professor Allen Thomas has worked with some of the best and brightest students at the University of Nebraska at Kearney during his six years on campus.
Future doctors, pharmacists, dentists, veterinarians and professional chemists have made their way through his research lab inside UNK’s Bruner Hall of Science.
Yet, none of them has accomplished what current UNK junior Hannah Way achieved this semester. The York native is the seventh UNK student ever selected to present at the Posters on the Hill undergraduate research conference. She’s the first Loper working under Thomas’ mentorship to receive the honor.
“I can’t say enough good things about Hannah,” said Thomas. “She’s one of the hardest-working research students I’ve had.”
Started in 1996, Posters on the Hill is a prestigious and highly competitive event where students present their work in Washington, D.C., and meet with members of Congress and their staffs to discuss the importance of undergraduate research and other educational programs.
The Council on Undergraduate Research received more than 360 applications from students across the country for this year’s poster session. Only 60 of those students were selected for the event at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill.
Way, a pre-medical student majoring in chemistry with a health sciences emphasis, experienced a little shock and a lot of excitement when she learned her presentation was accepted.
“I was really looking forward to it,” said Way, who was scheduled to leave for Washington, D.C., this Sunday – the day after her 21st birthday.
In addition to presenting her research poster – titled “Concentrative Nucleoside Transporter 2 Inhibitors Based on Ribavirin” – Way and Thomas planned to explore the nation’s capital and meet with U.S. Sens. Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse and U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith.
However, like countless other events across the world, Posters on the Hill was impacted by the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. Instead of hosting an in-person event, the Council on Undergraduate Research is inviting selected students to participate in a virtual poster session beginning 11 a.m. Tuesday. Students are being asked to present a digital version of their poster and engage with others on Twitter using the hashtags #POH2020 and #POHGoesVirtual.
Way will take part from her parents’ home in York.
“It’s obviously a big disappointment to both of us that she won’t be going to Washington,” Thomas said.
A member of Thomas’ research team since spring 2018, Way also participated in UNK’s Summer Student Research Program. Additionally, her research project was funded by the Nebraska EPSCoR Undergraduate Research Experiences at Small Colleges and Universities program.
“At UNK, they encourage students to get involved in undergraduate research,” she said. “I thought it would look good for medical school, and it also interested me. I love problem-solving, and working in the lab is a lot of fun.”
The project selected for Posters on the Hill focuses on a nucleoside transporter that could play a role in addiction, epilepsy and hyperuricemia.
“We’re trying to design molecules that will block this particular transporter in order to better understand its function within the body,” Thomas explained.
Blocking this transport protein could be helpful in treating or preventing certain conditions, particularly hyperuricemia, an excess of uric acid in the blood that can be caused by high levels of alcohol, meat or seafood consumption. Hyperuricemia can lead to several ailments, including kidney disease and gout.
“That’s probably the most clear-cut application at this point,” Thomas said. “There are all kinds of other potential health applications, but more data is needed to know whether this transporter might be relevant.”
The UNK research team is working toward publishing its results in this area.
Thomas called Way an “amazing student” who is dedicated and highly dependable in the lab.
“She’s very enthusiastic about learning more about research,” he said.
Way, who maintains a 4.0 GPA while participating in the UNK Honors Program, enjoys research so much she’s considering making it part of her career. The UNK junior is leaning toward attending medical school and pursuing a doctorate so she can work in medical research.
“I would love to continue working in drug discovery,” Way said.