Mentoring program puts Duluth East grad in the center of Lyme disease research
At 18, Jubran Jindeel has a skill the vast majority of us will never acquire.
"If someone needs help on how to extract something, we say, 'Ask Jubran,'" said Terrence Wilcox, a member of the biology faculty at Lake Superior College.
Specifically, extracting DNA from ticks.
If your first thought is that you don't particularly care about the DNA of ticks, you might want to reconsider. The information Jindeel and others are compiling might have implications for anyone who spends time outdoors in the Northland.
More on that later, but first a word about why the Duluth East graduate is involved with tick research in the first place.
It starts with the Bridges to the Baccalaureate program, which matches community college students with mentors in biomedical sciences. The National Institutes of Health launched the program in 1992, and two years later, the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota Medical School applied for it and was accepted. The program was headed then, and still is now, by Benjamin Clarke, an associate professor in the medical school's Department of Biomedical Sciences. It's the only Bridges to the Baccalaureate program in the Upper Midwest.
Lake Superior College and Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College are the partner schools with the medical school. Wilcox has directed Lake Superior College's participation for the past eight years.
Wilcox said he enjoys recruiting students for the program, which has eight openings each year.
"I usually send out an email to my colleagues," he explained. "Is there someone in your class that has a different eye that seems interested enough? And that's who I go after.
"We're looking for ... curious-minded students."
Students who are chosen get quite a jump start while still in community college. They attend an eight-week "boot camp" in the summer, then choose which lab under which mentor they want to work with at the medical school. They're also paid a stipend. A room at the medical school is reserved for their use.
Jindeel was a freshman at Lake Superior College when he noticed a poster advertising the program, he said. He attended a session at the school's Student Success Day, met Wilcox, and decided the Bridges program was for him.
"I thought it was really cool," Jindeel said as he and Wilcox were being interviewed recently in the program's headquarters at the medical school. "It's hard to just walk in here and talk to a professor. ... It was really cool to have that 'in' as a way to get into doing some research."
During the boot camp, Jindeel participated in Clarke's ongoing Lyme disease research program, which involves collecting ticks and analyzing which carry the bacteria that causes the disease. Ticks also are sent in the mail and added to the school's "tick bank."
The intended result is a map that will display the areas of the Northland most susceptible to tick bites that could cause Lyme disease. It's not going to mean precautions won't be needed in other areas, but it will identify the areas where hikers and others will need to be especially vigilant.
Jindeel originally is from Los Angeles, where ticks and Lyme disease aren't thought about much, he said. He was excited to be part of research in an area that hasn't been well-studied. He chose to continue his work in Clarke's lab, with Clarke as a mentor.
Now he plays a key role in the project.
"Jubran is one of the technical wizards who is going to inspect the ticks and determine if they carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease," Clarke said during an interview over the phone.
That involves "grinding them up" and putting them through a solution to expose the bacteria, he said.
"That's just with a bunch of chemicals you put in there that basically breaks up the tick," Jindeel said. "And then a couple of purification steps, and then you can get at DNA. And then I'll test the DNA for bacteria."
In August, Jindeel, whose heritage is Middle Eastern, submitted the project to a panel and was chosen to present it in November at the annual Biomedical Conference for Minority Students.
Wilcox, who has been a judge at the conference for the past six years, said it attracts between three and four thousand undergraduate students and also attracts recruiters from graduate schools.
"It's an opportunity for those schools to get the youngest minds and very creative minds," he said.
At the conference, Jindeel had to offer a poster presentation of the project in front of judges. It sounds nerve wracking, but he said he was ready.
"I actually wasn't too nervous because ... at the end of the summer program, you present a poster," he said. "It was pretty much the same as how it was in the conference."
The boot camp includes a public speaking class, Wilcox and Clarke said. That might seem out of place in a science course, but it's a vital skill for today's scientists, Wilcox said.
"I think one of our visions is today's scientists have to be able to talk in the scientific tongue but also have to be able to talk to the layperson," he said. "Why are you doing this research? Why is your research important to me?"
Jindeel has another advantage, Wilcox said: his mentor.
"He's under the direction of Dr. Ben Clarke, and if anyone is under him — his guidance and setup and insistence on 'Why, why,'" Wilcox said. "He's really good at coaching them on what they need to know and why they need to know it."
Jindeel was surprised that there weren't any scores or rankings on the projects at the conference, he said. "But I talked to three judges, and they were all really encouraging. ... They said I was doing good on the project. That was nice to hear that at least I was doing a little bit something right."
Now a junior at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Jindeel is keeping his options open, he said. He knows he wants to be involved in scientific research, and he knows that will require graduate studies.
"He's very bright, and he's a quick study," Clarke said. "He's going to do well in his career."
Both Clarke and Wilcox began their careers in community colleges and are passionate about helping today's community college students succeed in their field. The Bridges program gives them a hand up, Clarke said.
"You get to learn the culture of what goes on in science," he said. "Sometimes that's a barrier for a lot of students when they first walk into the laboratory. It's a different environment. People talk a little different, they act a little different. It can be a cold shock at first. But then you find out scientists are like anybody else."
Jindeel affirmed that.
"You have a good foundation," he said of what the program provides. "At least you know what people are talking about. You've kind of gotten used to how people talk."
Meanwhile, the culmination of the risk map project is in sight.
"We've got a lot of ticks, and we've got to get through ... them," Clarke said. "And I think the lion's share of that burden rests on Jubran's shoulders. But if we can get through them, I would hope by the end of the summer we'd be able to launch it."
Which is why, when he's not in class, Jindeel might be found in the lab.
"It's not a finished product," he said. "We're still collecting ticks, and I'm still perfecting testing the DNA. That's what I'm working on right now."