Biochemistry Major Working to Create Mental Health Drug Treatments Without Side Effects

Posted on 7/31/2016 3:25:23 PM

Chasity Hankinson Biochemistry major researching drugs for mental healthJust four semesters into her college career, Chasity Hankinson is well on the path to making a difference. As a member of the IUP Research Experience for Summer Scholars (RESS) program, she’s spending her summer in the lab, doing research that could lead to the creation of drugs that would help with a variety of mental health issues—without giving negative side effects.

“It’s something with a real application,” said Hankinson, a junior biochemistry major from Indiana who graduated from Marion Center High School.

As a member of IUP’s RESS program, Hankinson is working with Justin Fair, Department of Chemistry, to synthesize neurotransmitters in the lab. It’s a molecular modeling project involving biology, psychology, and chemistry students at IUP and could lead to a significant discovery in the pharmaceutical world.

 “We’re trying to find some new pharmaceutical leads to probe the chemical spaces of different receptors in the brain that are responsible for depression and other certain types of behaviors,” Fair said.

Hankinson is able to work on this project because of the RESS program. Hankinson hopes her participation will give her an advantage when she looks to enroll in medical school after her graduation from IUP.

Growing up in Indiana County, Hankinson was well aware of the local university, but she never thought she’d end up so close to home. When she took a look at IUP, she realized everything she needed was here, and the fact that she was able to live at home meant she could earn a bachelor’s degree much more affordably than if she were to enroll somewhere farther away.

Two years later, she believes choosing IUP was the best decision she could have made.

“I was unaware of all the options here,” she said. “I didn’t know work like this could be done here. There are so many more opportunities here than I had ever thought. I’m glad I’m here. IUP is close to home, and it feels like home.”

Among those opportunities is the RESS program, which gives Hankinson and the other participants a summer filled with research experiences, and that’s rare for undergraduates to get.

“It’s exciting to have this experience, because a lot of other kids don’t get to do work like this,” Hankinson said. “At other schools, you don’t do this until grad school.”

This is the third year for the IUP RESS program, open to undergraduate and graduate students. Students must have a faculty mentor for their research and must include a letter of recommendation in their application in order to be accepted for the program.

The RESS is coordinated by Fair and includes faculty mentors in several departments. IUP’s 10-week program is modeled after the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs, and offers students the chance to participate in a cutting-edge experience that links knowledge and skills learned in coursework to real-work scientific and societal problems.

The RESS program includes a number of events for students, and will conclude August 4 with a poster session by the students and a special keynote presentation with Anne J. Jefferson, a geology faculty member at Kent State University. Jefferson’s presentation is “Stopping Stormwater: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Improving the Urban Environment.”

Jefferson’s presentation begins at 2:00 p.m., followed by the poster session. The program is open to the community and will be held in the Hadley Union Building Ohio Room.