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Arts and Sciences in Action

Written by John Chadwick | SAS Senior Writer

Dean's Emergency Fund Helps Students Stay on Course

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Kathryn Ulett was worried about her future.

The School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) student who dreamed of becoming a doctor was experiencing financial hardship during her first year at Rutgers.

She was forced to take a leave of absence, and went back to her native Jamaica.

“I didn’t have any family here that I could’ve stayed with or that could have helped me out,” said Ulett, who moved to the US when she was 13 and graduated from Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey.

But seeing the economic struggles that her family was facing in Jamaica made her even more determined to return to school and pursue her calling.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” she said. “Even though I’d lived in Jamaica before, I was older during my leave of absence and I began to understand a lot more than I did when I was younger.”

She returned to New Brunswick the following year, feeling both hopeful and worried.

“Honestly, I wasn’t sure how I would pay for school,” she said.

She went to the SAS Office of Undergraduate Education, where she met with Muffin Lord and Kate Cahill. They listened to her story, reviewed the options, and recommended she apply for a grant from the SAS Dean’s Emergency Assistance Fund.

For Ulett, just having someone to talk to about her situation was a relief.

“I was so nervous going in to see them,” she said. “But they were both so nice. It felt good to talk face to face. It wasn’t like I was emailing some random person and having this impersonal exchange.”

Ulett is far from alone in facing a financial crisis.The SAS Dean’s Emergency Assistance Fund was established precisely for those situations when students have exhausted all other means of support. In recent years, with the financial crash of 2008, and the resulting recession, the fund has been needed more than ever. Over the past five years, donors have supported nearly 300 SAS students by giving to the fund.

This vital support system is being recognized during Teaching Annual Giving, or TAG Week, which begins October 16 and aims to educate students about the impact of alumni donor support.

The idea for the fund emerged back in the late 1980s and early 1990s when a Rutgers College student came forward seeking help to buy new eye glasses.

“There was a realization at that point that more had to be done for students in need,” said Lord, who retired last spring from her dual role as SAS Honors Program Administrative Director and the SAS Scholarship Administrator. “We were able to get support from a donor, and we started paying more attention to kids who had trouble buying their books and paying their term bills.”

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SAS has over time developed a process that includes sitting down with students and reviewing their financial resources as well as developing an academic plan to make sure they are on target to graduate.

“We try to work in a holistic manner that takes into account the whole student and everything they have to deal with,” says Cahill, who serves as acting scholarship director. “We work with Office of Financial Aid and see if they can qualify for scholarships. We recommend that they meet with academic advisors. We want to do everything we can so that they are set for the long term and meet their goal of attaining their undergraduate degree.”

Ulett received the assistance she needed to stay in school. She graduates in May 2018 with majors in biological sciences and psychology. She plans to become a pediatric neurologist.

“I am feeling very grateful for the support I received,” she said. “And it’s in that spirit that I want to go into medicine so I can one day help communities in need.”

Investigating how abnormal proteins lead to disease

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Allysa Kemraj was in high school when doctors diagnosed her with a rare genetic disorder.

At Rutgers, she was surprised—and thrilled—to find a research lab that explores the science associated with her illness, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a disease that affects the body’s connective tissue.

She soon began working in the lab.

“I was looking for research opportunities that would be a good fit,” says the senior from Roselle, New Jersey. “Then I found this lab, and I was completely floored.”

Kemraj is an undergraduate research assistant in a lab run by Jean Baum, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences. Baum studies the interactions of proteins in the body and their role in Parkinson’s disease and other types of illnesses, including EDS, and a disease that affects patients receiving long-term dialysis treatment.

Jean Baum resize“Most people, understandably, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the interactions between infinitesimal protein molecules in the body,” Baum says. “But when the interactions are disrupted or altered, serious illness can result.”

Baum’s lab uses sophisticated instruments to study proteins at the atomic level. And that helps break new ground on illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, in which researchers have discovered proteins that fold abnormally and form long chains called fibrils.

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, meanwhile, refers to a group of disorders that include loose joints, stretchy skin, and excessive scar formation. These illnesses are linked to flawed collagen molecules, the most abundant protein in the body.

In high school, Kemraj noticed she was sustaining an inordinate number of injuries, such as dislocations and torn ligaments. “I played soccer and ran track,” she says. “I thought maybe it was growing pains.”

But then she began suffering from fainting spells and nausea. She and her family eventually went to the Mayo Clinic where doctors said she had EDS. Although she has a moderate form of the disease, Kemraj battles symptoms that include gastro-intestinal dysmotility, fatigue, and heart palpitations and arrhythmia. She makes frequent hospital visits. During her sophomore year at Rutgers, she sustained two ruptured discs in her back and required extensive medical attention and rehabilitation.

Alyssa Square 0632 RU SAS“I am lucky because when I go for medical care, I am able to leave the hospital and resume my life,” she says. “But that is not true for a lot of patients with EDS and other genetic disorders.”

Kemraj spends up to 20 hours a week in the Baum lab, working under Cody Hoop, a scientist who studies collagen illnesses like brittle bone disease. Hoop’s EDS research is supported by the American Heart Association because the disease in its most serious form can affect blood vessels and cause aortic aneurisms and ruptures.

For Kemraj, working so closely with her own illness is both an educational and edgy experience.

“I’ll be reading the medical literature and I’m, like, ‘Yup, that’s what’s going on in my body,’’’ she says. “It’s a little scary, but most of the time, it’s fascinating.”

Scientists studying proteins, a field known as structural biology, say their work offers hope for patients, particularly through drug discovery.

Andy Nieuwkoop“If you know the shape of a protein and know the shape of a drug molecule that’s acting on that protein, you’ve got a good foundation from which to work to improve that drug,” says Andy Nieuwkoop, a professor in the chemistry and chemical biology department.

Both Baum and Nieuwkoop oversee research teams that use nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers—instruments that allow them to examine proteins at the atomic level. Protein samples are placed in a powerful magnetic field and bombarded with radio waves so that they send out distinct frequencies. Researchers use those signals to build models that show the location of each atom.

“They’re like MRIs, except for proteins rather than people,” says Nieuwkoop, whose team studies proteins and cell membranes, an emerging area that has implications for cancer and other diseases.

“The equipment we have at Rutgers is as good as anywhere in the world,” he says. “The technological advancements have gotten to the point where we can do experiments we could only dream about 10 years ago.”

The field attracts talented researchers, both graduate and undergraduate, who are drawn to the human health mission and eager to work with the NMR technology.

“I was drawn to the Baum lab because of its theme of protein-to-protein interaction,” says Hoop, a post-doctoral fellow who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine. “It’s important to understand how these interactions happen so that we can design drugs that can encourage or discourage interactions that may be connected to disease.”

Tamr Atieh resizeTamr Atieh, a chemistry major as a Rutgers undergraduate and now a graduate student, says the study of proteins is an increasingly influential field.

“A lot of the new drugs coming out are proteins,” he says.

Kemraj, meanwhile, said the Baum lab has had a major influence on her plans. She wants to go for an M.D./Ph.D. and devote her life to studying collagen and treating children.

“I want be a doctor and a specialist who can look my patients in the eye and say, ‘I, too, know what it’s like to have a chronic illness. And I’m going to do everything I can to help you.”’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These incoming first-year students know exactly why they chose a liberal arts education at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

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