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Twenty-three additional EXROP participants—scientists in the making—during a meeting at HHMI headquarters this past may.
Growing up in Mount Morris, Michigan, a city 45 minutes north of Detroit where nearly everybody works for General Motors, Cochran never even thought about being a scientist. "It's hard to want to be something you've never seen," she explains. "I had no idea until I got to Spelman that there were black people in every walk of life, including black women in math and science."
It wasn't easy for Cochran to attend Spelman. Scholarships saw her through her freshman year, and student loans financed her sophomore year. As a junior, she moved off campus, sharing an apartment with a friend because it cost too much to live in the dormitories.
Now Cochran's younger sister attends Spelman too. Their mother has always been determined that these two young women get an excellent college education. "She says her house and her BMW are invested in our brains," Cochran remarks with a grin.
Deanna Cochran spent her first EXROP summer studying how caffeine affects the sleeping behavior of Drosophila. Comparing the sleep cycles of fruit flies that had been fed various amounts of caffeine with those of a caffeine-free control group, she gathered data on disruption of the normal sleep cycle and how the flies returned to normal.
"Drosophila are great model organisms for sleep research," she says, "and studies of sleep in flies have already been used to dispel many myths about what happens during sleep. Examining how chemicals can affect the normal sleep cycle, for instance, can help us understand the tasks that the brain performs while in its resting state."
As valuable as the EXROP learning experience is to the undergrad, it is a two-way street. "We learned a lot from each other because we think entirely differently," says Karen Ho, a postdoc in Sehgal's lab who mentored Cochran. "She thinks physiologically. I think molecularly. So we read the same paper and get entirely different things out of it."
Cochran agrees. "Now I can see the relevance of all that boring molecular biology," she says with an infectious grin.
"Deanna is fantastic," Ho continues. "She wonders about everything. She's made me wonder again too."
Antonio Perez was another EXROP student. He spent the summer between his sophomore and junior years at Harvard University, working in HHMI investigator Louis M. Kunkel's Harvard lab. There he studied the potential of a specialized group of cells, called muscle side population (SP) cells, to play a role in muscular-dystrophy therapy.
Kunkel, who explores the molecular and genetic basis of human neuromuscular diseases, discovered the mutation that causes Duchenne's muscular dystrophy. Kunkel is also strongly committed to engaging young people, having mentored more than 50 undergraduates over the years. "What we're doing here is training the next generation of scientists," he says of the EXROP program. "My legacy will be the people I've trained."
Photo: Paul Fetters