Two Concordia College students traded in their summer clothing for white lab coats to participate in an undergraduate research program with a group in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Bismarck natives Alex Hopkins, 21, and Hunter Huff Towle, 22, are both seniors at Concordia. This summer, they were part of the Sanford Program for Undergraduate Research internship at Sanford Research, a nonprofit organization between Sanford Health and the University of South Dakota.

During the 10-week program, 46 undergraduate students worked side by side with numerous faculty members and principal investigators in a large, state-of-the-art lab.

In his research, Huff Towle looked for early presenting biomarkers for Type 1 diabetes.

“When most people are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, sometimes 90 percent of your insulin-producing cells have already been destroyed," the chemistry major said.

The research aims to identify diabetes sooner so it can be addressed in the early stages.

He and his lab mates, who spent the summer looking for a molecule protein, are working toward getting it accepted as an early biomarker in the medical community.

“It’s a long, arduous process in terms of getting (research) accepted into the medical community," he said.

“It’s always a process of learning. Research itself takes a long time, and it can be a slow process," said Dr. Lance Lee, a researcher at Sanford Research who also oversees the Sanford Program for Undergraduate Research internship program. “Students get a chance to learn that.”

Prior to applying for the program, Huff Towle said he was interested in research but wanted to work with people, too, so he looked for an opportunity that combined the two.

“It was so interactive between what I learned in school and what I was applying in the lab," he said. “Even though we weren’t directly working with patients, it’s all about in the end making a difference for people with Type 1 diabetes.”

Lee said several different areas of research are available to the program's students: a children’s health research center for better understanding and treatment of pediatric diseases; a cancer biology research center, toward a better understanding and treatment of various types of cancers; and a center for health outcomes and population research, which involves human population-based epidemiological studies and health disparities studies.

“It’s just great to work with students who are often experiencing research for the first time," Lee said. “It’s really a steppingstone for them in their career paths.”

Hopkins spent her days inside a lab studying pediatric leukemia -- specifically, a certain gene to see if it was important in leukemic transformation. 

Her study's primary investigator and mentor was a doctor at Sioux Falls, who spent part of his time as a pediatric oncologist and part of his time researching. In addition to working with him, she job-shadowed him.

“Now, I’m a lot more interested in pediatrics," Hopkins said.

Huff Towle said he'll consider continuing to study diabetes when he applies to medical school in the next several days.

“After spending so much time on diabetes, it was hard not to become interested in possibly treating that one day," he said.

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