It's unusual for two undergraduate biology students to receive a grant to do research on kidney disease, much less to receive a Sigma Xi grant, the Scientific Research Society known for its highly competitive grant application process. But Campbell University students Josh McKinnon and Matt Conover didn't let a little healthy competition stand in their way. With the help of their research advisor, Dr. Karen Guzman, assistant professor of biological sciences, McKinnon and Conover applied for $1,000 to study how kidney cells connect to form a filter that produces urine. The study could one day help people with kidney disease. "Only approximately 20 percent of applicants receive any level of funding from Sigma Xi," Guzman beamed. "In late December Josh and Matt were notified that they had received the maximum amount of $1,000." Sigma Xi has nearly 65,000 members who were elected to membership based on their research potential or achievements. More than 200 members have won the Nobel Prize. McKinnon's and Conover's research will focus on cells found in the kidney called podocytes. "These are the cells that form 'little feet' that interdigitate or touch together to make a sieve or filter," said Guzman. "There hasn't been a lot of research done on these cells," Conover said, "because science just recently discovered how these cells interact." Both McKinnon, a senior from Hickory, N.C., and Conover, a senior from Gastonia, have always been interested in science. McKinnon plans to pursue a medical degree and Conover would like to go on to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in microbiology. "They've both got different strengths," said Guzman. "Josh likes theory and philosophy, while Matt likes working in the lab. That's why they work so well together." "We sort of round each other out," McKinnon said. To study the kidney cells, McKinnon and Conover will not only be working with Guzman but will collaborate with Dr. Thomas Abraham, assistant professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the Campbell School of Pharmacy. Using SiRNA technology, which suppresses specific gene function, and podocyte cells in culture, they will attempt to "silence" or "turn off" genes to better understand how they affect the way the podocytes interact to perform their filtration function. The team will also study the protein, nephrin, which is important in creating the filter in the kidneys.
Photo Copy: Student researchers, Josh McKinnon, left, and Matt Conover, discuss an upcoming project for which the two were awarded a research grant with their advisor Dr. Karen Guzman, assistant professor of biological sciences.