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Lumen Scholar studies genetic links for tissue regrowth

Ever wonder how common earthworms grow back when cut in half? It’s a puzzle whose pieces are today the focus of research by Elon senior Amelia Helms, the second student to be featured in a series of E-net profiles on the inaugural class of Lumen Scholars.

Elon senior Amelia Helms with her Lumen mentor, assistant professor Jeffrey Coker.

In the year and a half since she was named one of the first 15 scholars, Helms has researched the genes that activate tissue regeneration in Lumbricus terrestris, one of the most common species found in North America.

Her goal, she says, is to identify what points in the healing process certain genes “flip on” like a light switch.

“Most of the genes that I am looking at are found, in some form, in many different organisms, including humans, so the data that I am gathering can be compared to many different creatures,” she said. “This could be helpful, since there is such a wide range of regenerative capability.”

Does this mean her work will one day help people grow back limbs lost through disease or injury? That’s a remote possibility, but much more likely, it will contribute to a growing body of scientific research that may one day help doctors devise innovative therapies and treatments for the human body.

Not bad for a scholar who landed a primo internship before she moved into the dorms her freshman year.

“I spent the summer before I came to Elon volunteering at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine,” the current Honors Fellow explained of her interest in stem cell research. “I was exposed to a lot of really fascinating research and some nifty ideas. I knew I wanted to do research as a student at Elon and continue with that sort of topic.”

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements.

Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects. Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development, and creative productions and performances.

The name for the Lumen Prize comes from Elon's historic motto, “Numen Lumen,” Latin words for “spiritual light” and “intellectual light.”

Helms cited her Lumen mentor, assistant professor of biology Jeffrey Coker, as an invaluable guide who has helped brainstorm ideas and troubleshoot experiments.

“One of the things I love about Amelia is that the things she’s interested in are important to the larger society,” Coker said. “She has a deep passion for discovering things and she loves doing experiments.

Coker points out that Helms grew her own earthworms for the experiments, researching soil conditions and food quantities for their ideal growth. “I really see her as a potential future research star,” he added. “She seems to me like someone who has that extra little something.

“If 20 years from now she was getting an award for curing something, I would not be surprised.”

Helms joked that despite her enthusiasm for earthworms, she doesn’t spend all her time in the lab. The North Carolina native actively involved in Sigma Alpha Omega, a Christian sorority, and enjoys participating in Elon's Ballroom Dance Club.

Her short-term goal is to publish the results of her research in a journal. The daughter of Charles and Kathleen Helms of Pfaftown, N.C., plans to pursue a Ph.D in biology after her graduation in May, possibly at a program in North Carolina.

Whether her earthworm research has medical applications, assists the agricultural community or just adds to general scientific knowledge, Helms said she simply wants to benefit society.

“I would love to spend the rest of my life doing research,” she said. “I love thinking up questions and then finding out the answers.”

To learn more about the Lumen Prize and other undergraduate research opportunities at Elon University, click on the link to the right of this page under E-Cast.


- Emily Eng, Office of University Relations

 

Eric Townsend,
Staff
11/3/2009 11:17 AM