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Your Environment. Your Health.

Undergraduate Researchers Contribute to Melanoma Research

James Hoerter, Ph.D.

April 30, 2012

James Hoerter, Ph.D., is working to understand the causes of melanoma, a type of skin cancer that claims around 8,000 lives each year in the United States. He is funded through an NIEHS Academic Enhancement Research Award (AREA), a program designed to support small-scale research projects at institutions where primary focus is undergraduates.

Melanoma develops in melanocytes, the pigment cells present in the skin. Hoerter, a professor at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., hypothesizes that this type of skin cancer develops when undifferentiated cells, also known as adult melanocyte stem cells, accumulate Ultra violet ultraviolet radiation-induced damage over time. Later in life, adult melanocytes regenerated from these damaged stem cells may be more susceptible to sunlight or radiation from a tanning bed. “Melanoma may have its origins in a stem cell, and not in a mature pigment cell. This may be one reason why people with histories of severe sunburn in childhood are more susceptible to melanoma later in life,” Hoerter said. If this is true, it will have important implications for the treatment and prevention of melanoma.

Undergraduates play a key role in Hoerter’s research. For example, some of the student researchers do more than care for the zebrafish used to test Hoerter's hypothesis. Exposing the fish to a non-toxic chemical that eliminates the adult melanocytes without eradicating the stem cells allows Hoerter and the students to study the effects of UV-radiation on only the stem cells and not on the mature melanocytes.

Hoerter (pictured center) poses with students and colleagues in his laboratory.

“My laboratory is really just an extension of the classroom,” he said. “Learning can take place everywhere these days, but in a lab students can become immersed in a problem, learn how to test it by designing an experiment and then have a real sense of accomplishment when they solve it.”

Students can work in his lab beginning in their freshman year, and there are typically eight student researchers at any one time. Those who are new to the lab learn analysis methods and how to design experiments from students who have more experience. The students also gain a sense of community and learn to conduct science as part of a team, and weekly lab meetings help them connect their experiments to the overall research goal of understanding how melanoma develops.

Hoerter also received an NIEHS supplement grant to support Alexandria Casillas, a full time post-baccalaureate fellow who is working in the lab for a year. The fellowship is designed to provide research experience and career mentoring to a member of a underserved group to encourage a research career in environmental health sciences.

According to Hoerter, Casillas helps anchor the lab, teaches students new methods, and shows the students the importance of diversity in research environments. “She coordinates experiments and has helped moved the research along while she also develops skills as a scientist that will prepare her for a career, possibly in environmental health sciences,” he said.

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