UT-Austin alumna and former FRI students wins medical research fellowship

Kevin Dural

UT-Austin stays true to its motto: What starts here changes the world. One alumna and former Freshman Research Initiative student is realizing this motto by winning a fellowship at a top medical institute.

Lynne Chantranupong, class of 2010 alumna, was named a 2017 Hanna H. Gray Fellow, a prestigious designation by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). According to its website, HHMI, a medical research center headquartered in Maryland, has the third largest endowment out of any nonprofit charitable organization. According to the HHMI, the award seeks to recognize researchers from groups that have been underrepresented within the STEM field. Recipients are awarded funding for their postdoctoral education.

Chantranupong is a postdoctorate research fellow in neurobiology at the Harvard Medical School. Her current research includes investigating neural interactions and neurotransmitters, which are signaling molecules that transmit messages between neighboring nerve cells. Her work involves identifying the molecules that are a part of this interaction.

“We’re working on figuring out the methods to understand how cells and organelles work to release neurotransmitters to communicate,” Chantranupong said. “Continued research and understanding of the interactions at the level of organelles is undoubtedly important.”

In her time at UT-Austin, Chantranupong participated in the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI), a program that gives undergraduate students their first taste of real-world research. Through the program, students are introduced to methods of answering unsolved questions in a laboratory. The program, established by the College of Natural Sciences in 2005, is the largest undergraduate research program in the U.S.

Chantranupong said her experience with the FRI was unique, describing it as an innovative program to introduce incoming freshman to research.

“I was more on the mentoring side of the FRI while working in the evolution laboratory of the evolution department,” Chantranupong said. “It was nice to be with a group of individuals learning if research is what they want.”

She added that since such an opportunity that directly organizes and promotes undergraduate research is not readily available across all universities in the U.S., students at UT interested in laboratory work already have a head start.

The FRI program has been replicated by many universities across the nation, from UT-Rio Grande Valley to the University of Maryland. FRI director Stacia Rodenbusch said there are several key elements of FRI that other institutions adopting the program have sought to replicate.

“First, the experience needs to come early, ideally during the students’ first year on campus,” Rodenbusch said. “Second, research through FRI should provide course credit for students, ideally that counts towards their degree requirements so that research does not present an additional burden in students’ already busy schedules.”

Rodenbusch added that other aspects of the FRI program that render it a national model in training undergraduate researchers include the strong relationships and relevance to other research on campus.

“Third, the research that is done in FRI is linked to the research that is done in faculty labs on campus, so there is potential for students to go deep and continue on projects over multiple semesters or even years if they are interested in doing so,” Rodenbusch said. “Finally, students doing research in FRI are part of a close-knit community of undergraduates, graduate students and faculty, which gives them the support they need to work through the challenges of research.”

According to Rodenbusch, FRI enables undergraduate students to enjoy successful careers in science by providing authentic research opportunities early in the undergraduate experience.

Chantranupong added that it’s nice to look back and see how she developed as a researcher since her first days in FRI.

“It’s a common joke that 90 percent of what you do doesn’t work,” Chantranupong said. “It’s more of advice, actually; if you’re passionate about what you’re doing, research can be one of the most rewarding fields out there.”