RaCAS draws crowd
Students welcome at RaCAS
Joe Pham and Diana Lee, work-study employees of the Experiential Learning Center, greet RaCAS participants in raucous fashion.

Celebrating research from the sciences to the humanities, the 21st annual Research and Creative Activities Symposium (RaCAS) primed creative minds and broke records this year, as more than 500 participants and viewers from the University of Colorado Denver and Anschutz Medical Campus joined in the event.

A record 238 student presentations infused two floors of the Student Commons Building at CU Denver with passionate inquiry on April 27, delving into topics from cancer treatments to virtual learning tools. Under the guidance of a new director, it was the largest RaCAS turnout ever in the research showcase’s two decades.

“That was one of my goals when I took this job,” said Lindsey Hamilton, director of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities, who accepted the reins as RaCAS director on Jan. 1. “I wanted to bring more awareness to the research that’s taking place on our campuses and change the impression of RaCAS to be more inclusive of all scholarly work.”

Rather than focusing solely on outstanding completed research, Hamilton and crew advertised heavily that projects in progress and of all levels were welcome. “This is a great opportunity to practice presentation,” Hamilton said. “We told them communicating their work was a learning experience and a critical component to their education. And it worked. We had a great turnout.”

For the first time, RaCAS involved student- rather than faculty-organized mini-symposiums, with a record 15 participants. Hamilton also added an Emerging Scholar award to the honoree list, acknowledging the work of 19 students.

Student with poster
Kathleen Nguyen presents her poster project on an innovative nanoparticle therapy aimed at improving detection and treatment of bladder cancer. She won a People’s Choice award for her presentation.

Targeting bladder cancer

“This is actually my fourth poster presentation this month,” said Kathleen Nguyen, a bioengineering undergraduate in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, who won a People’s Choice award for her presentation.

“I’ve met so many people. I think this experience is invaluable,” Nguyen said, adding that, in addition to culling connections, presenting at RaCAS and other symposiums helps inspire and prepare students for graduate school.

Looking at how nanoparticles can translate into medical uses, Nguyen highlighted a collaborative research effort in the Nanosafety and Nanotoxicology Lab in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. By combining gold nanorods and upconversion nanoparticles, the researchers are working on a noninvasive means of detecting and eradicating bladder cancer.

“We told them communicating their work was a learning experience and a critical component to their education. And it worked. We had a great turnout.” – Lindsey Hamilton, RaCAS director

Gold nanorods contain a property called surface plasmon resonance, Nguyen said. “Basically, that means they oscillate really fast under high-frequency lasers. So, when you shine lasers at near infrared light at these gold nanorods, they vibrate really fast and create a lot of heat, which can be utilized for thermal ablation of bladder cancer.”

By attaching upconversion nanoparticles, which will brightly fluoresce under low-frequency laser light, the aim is to detect and specifically target tumors with the complexes. “The idea is to attach these two together and insert them into the bladder in some sort of solution,” Nguyen said, explaining that the gold nanorod complexes have an anti-EGFR antibody called C225.

“It turns out that bladder cancer tumors have over expression of EGFR, so these gold nanorod complexes will only attach to the tumor,” she said. After the complex solution is allowed to sit in the patient for a short period of time, doctors would insert a catheter with a laser, detecting the tumors with low-frequency light and ablating them with high-frequency light.

Nguyen’s work is focused on how the gold nanorods could be used to activate immune responses that would detect and attack the tumor. “It’s really cool,” she said. “It’s very exciting.”

Student with poster
Angelique Dueñas stands next to her poster presentation on the educational value of 3-D embryos. Dueñas won first-place recognition for another presentation on Mapping the Body: Poetry and Anatomical Art New Student Exhibit Merges Humanities and Sciences in Higher Education Collaboration.

Bolstering embryology education

Focusing on educating future students in an area she has become passionate about but that has shown signs of declining interest, Angelique Dueñas, a master’s student in Modern Human Anatomy, presented a project weighing the value of 3-D virtual embryos in learning.

“I found it fascinating to see how we develop and why things are the way they are in our bodies,” Dueñas said, explaining her passion for embryology. After seeing a number of literature reviews on the medical curricula’s decreasing emphasis on embryology, she joined colleagues in their efforts to boost interest.

“It’s super important that medical students understand embryology,” Dueñas said. But the field has unique learning challenges. “It’s a three-dimensional subject,” she said of a fetus. “Then you add in time of a developing embryo, and it can be really challenging, especially when the classic presentation is 2-dimensional,” she said of textbook visuals.

So, her team designed 3-D printed models and virtual models and assessed their value. “You can use your mouse and look at all sides of the different organs,” Dueñas said, illustrating with a brightly colored eight-week embryo model on a computer screen. “You can click, and it will tell you what structure you are looking at,” she said, adding that the application used does have virtual-reality capabilities.

After recruiting 162 first-year medical, dental and graduate students, the researchers gave each volunteer a pre-quiz. They then assigned groups to a static pamphlet representation, a 3-D printed version and a 3-D virtual version. Then volunteers completed a post-quiz and survey.

“Students who interacted with the virtual model and the 3-D printed model seemed to increase their pre-test performance statistically significantly,” she said. “The pamphlet group did not.” Nearly 90 percent of students surveyed said they would like to see these resources in other stages and that it would enhance their understanding, Dueñas said. “They said they would even buy these resources, so it was really exciting for us.”