Kyle Turcic graduated from Benedictine University this May after not only impressing faculty members with his grasp of biology and laboratory research, but also being commended by some of the nation's most distinguished and recognized professionals in the field.
In addition to earning a bachelor's degree in biology, he spent 2½ years outside the classroom actively engaged in an undergraduate research project that caught the attention of professional experimental biologists at the annual meeting of the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in San Diego.
At the meeting of more than 14,000 scientists, Turcic, of Lisle, received an honorable mention award for work that sets the foundation to discover a drug for McCune-Albright Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes bone weakness, facial malformation and hyper-pigmented skin at puberty and extremely young ages.
Turcic worked alongside faculty adviser Robin Pals Rylaarsdam, professor of cell and molecular biology, who has been studying the misregulation of G-proteins and their relationship to diseases for more than five years at Benedictine.
G-proteins are cellular components that control the responses to many hormones and neurotransmitters. In McCune-Albright patients, one type of G-protein is abnormally active, causing children and adolescents with the disease to suffer from bone disease and frequent fractures.
"Being a part of this extraordinary research was humbling and rewarding," Turcic said. "I was able to present our research to people who had a genuine interest in our work. We even received suggestions on how to move our project onto the next phase."
During his presentation, Turcic explained the different experiments he conducted in Rylaarsdam's lab and how they were able to identify three potential regions on the G-proteins where drug molecules could be targeted to turn off the abnormal protein.
Work in the lab continues this summer, as Rylaarsdam begins a collaboration with a computational chemist to begin to test candidate drug molecules based on the work of Turcic and many other undergraduates who have worked in her lab over the years.
Two other May graduates, Alison Dufour of Darien, who received degrees in both biology and Spanish, and Kathryn Ghanayem of Wheaton, who received a bachelor's in health science, also contributed work in Rylaarsdam's lab and presented their findings on the G-protein and its relationship to McCune-Albright Syndrome.
The Benedictine team was not limited to McCune-Albright researchers. Sydney French of Durand, who received a bachelor's degree in biology and conducted research with faculty adviser Jayashree Sarathy, assistant professor of biological sciences, presented on the effects of pathological doses of bile acids on intestinal cell growth and barrier function.
Her studies demonstrated that high levels of bile acids in the intestinal lumen disrupt the tight junctions, which exacerbate during inflammation. Her studies will provide the basis for future studies on the role of bile-acid induced diarrhea in inflammatory diseases like Crohn's disease.
"I saw Kyle make the leap from a student reporting on what he did to a scientist discussing his ideas with other scientists," Rylaarsdam said.
"The first time anyone attends a huge scientific meeting like this, they begin to understand that what they're doing in the lab is a real contribution to our human understanding of how life works. Other scientists are honestly interested in their work, not because they're going to 'grade' the student, but because the students are showing new data that other scientists can use.
"In short, all four of our students graduated from being undergraduate students to standing as our scientific peers," Rylaarsdam said.
Likewise, students acknowledged the growth they experienced under the tutelage of their mentors.
"Professor Rylaarsdam has helped me grow and develop myself into the person and researcher I am today," Turcic said. "I am truly fortunate to have had her as my mentor. Going to a smaller school like Benedictine has many benefits and more student-teacher interaction is one of them.
"I had so many great opportunities at Benedictine -- opportunities that I would have never imagined during my first time walking onto campus as a freshman," Turcic said. "I am very fortunate and grateful to have had such amazing experiences where I was able to gauge my interests and weaknesses and truly develop myself."