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Press Release

Lauren Ward

For immediate release:
March 13, 2003

Carnegie Mellon Student Receives UNCF/Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholarship One of Only Fifteen Awarded Nationwide

PITTSBURGH—Carnegie Mellon University junior Ericka Anderson has received a prestigious 2003 United Negro College Fund/Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholarship in recognition of her outstanding work in biomedical research and her future potential. The award, one of only 15 given nationwide, consists of a $25,000 scholarship and two summer stipends totaling $10,000.

Anderson, a biological sciences major at the Mellon College of Science (MCS), has for the past two years conducted research in molecular genetics in the laboratory of Peter Berget, associate professor of biological sciences.

"I didn't expect to win this scholarship," says Anderson, a self-effacing student with a penchant for biology. "Dr. Berget brought me the application this fall and encouraged me to apply."

"Ericka has done extremely well in courses that have given many students difficulty. She always seems to be able to get everything done on time. Ericka is clearly one of those fortunate students who quickly found the perfect balance between academics and the rest of her life. This will stand her in good stead in the future," notes Peter Berget, associate professor of biology at Carnegie Mellon, adding, "Ericka has enormous joy for her life that one rarely finds in students these days. It has been my pleasure to mentor her."

In Berget's laboratory, Anderson is busy genetically engineering a humble yeast organism that has had its gene for the rpl29 protein knocked out. The rpl29 protein makes up part of the ribosomal machinery that translates messenger RNA into proteins. Currently, Anderson is introducing a fluorescently tagged version of the mouse rpl29 gene into the knockout yeast. Using this system, she can evaluate how the introduced rp129 protein is produced, where it localizes within the yeast cell, and whether this new protein behaves as yeast rp129. If the introduced protein appears identical to the yeast's own version, it's likely that the rp129 gene hasn't undergone significant changes during the course of evolution.

"This is one way to study evolution between organisms, to see what genes are changed and what's conserved," adds Anderson.

Last summer, Anderson conducted research in the laboratory of Carnegie Mellon alumnus, Glenn Radice, now a research associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and cell and developmental biology at the University of Pennsylvania. There, Anderson studied a transgenic "knock-out" mouse missing the gene for a cell adhesion molecule, N-cadherin, which is important to connect cells found in neurons and muscles. Anderson inserted a human E-cadherin gene into heart tissue of developing mice to learn whether this substitution would allow the animal to develop normal limbs through a 12-day embryo stage. In fact, limbs grew without N-cadherin, indicating that the gene substitution worked.

Neither of Anderson's parents is a scientist, although one is in business and the other is a former actuary in Anderson's hometown of Kennett Square, Pa., just outside Philadelphia. "I guess I got the math gene," she jokes, adding that she was inspired by her father, who worked hard to secure scholarships to achieve his undergraduate and MBA degrees.

What stimulated her interest in biology were her interactions with teachers at Unionville High School. "In high school freshman biology, I really clicked with the teacher," says Anderson. By her junior year AP Biology class, Anderson was hooked. "I loved it so much. I knew it was for me."

Anderson, who maintains a 3.6 GPA, managed to apply for the scholarship despite a grueling academic semester and recuperating from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injured during soccer. This semester, instead of sprinting for the track team as she normally would, Anderson is learning guitar. She also is continuing her work in Berget's laboratory, as well as taking coursework on the molecular biology of prokaryotes, immunology and experimental biochemistry.

Initiated in 1996, the UNCF-Merck Science Initiative is designed to increase the number of African American students pursuing careers in scientific research.

"Right now, less than 2 percent of Ph.D.s in biology and chemistry are held by African Americans. This limited number won't meet America's needs when more than 50 percent of new entrants into tomorrow's workforce will be minorities. Our joint Science Initiative is an innovative approach that will create new opportunities in the life and physical sciences and develop a huge, untapped resource for America," remarks William H. Gray III, president and CEO of the College Fund/UNCF, as quoted from the UNCF/Merck Science Initiative Web site:

As a UNCF/Merck Undergraduate Fellow, Anderson has agreed to perform two internships, one this summer (2003) and one the summer following her graduation (2004), under the mentorship of a Merck scientist at a Merck Research Laboratory. She and other scholarship recipients will be honored at a "Fellows Day" planned for June 21-24 in East Brunswick, New Jersey.

Although Anderson didn't need the scholarship to attend her final year at Carnegie Mellon, the money will offset future costs. Now, she'll apply the money her parents judiciously saved for college to cover her years at graduate school for a Ph.D. in genetics. She doesn't know exactly what she wants to study in this broad field, or whether she wants to head into industry or government after completing her studies.

"I haven't been able to pin down what excites me. Everything seems so cool," she says with a smile on her face.


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