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The Edward A. Doisy Research Center on SLU's campus.

Creating the Next Generation of Researchers

A generous grant from the DeNardo Education and Research Foundation awarded to Rita Heuertz, Ph.D., is creating unique opportunities for Saint Louis University students to work alongside the University's world-class researchers on impactful projects.

University students often find themselves eager for opportunities to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to real-life research scenarios. Whereas students at some universities are frustrated with hypothetical or scaled-back research opportunities, students at Saint Louis University receive opportunities to work alongside world-class researchers on real, externally funded projects. A generous grant from the DeNardo Education and Research Foundation connects students at varying levels to get involved in such opportunities as early as freshman year.

Rita Heuertz, Ph.D., MLS(ASCP), professor of clinical health sciences, has served as the principal investigator for the DeNardo grant since it was first awarded to her in 2013. Her program “Active Learning Through Research'' is in its sixth round of continuous funding and has enabled over 81 research scholarships to be awarded to students over the past decade.

“The program is all because of the DeNardo Education and Research Foundation,” Heuertz said. “This funding has provided scholarship funds to students for research experiences, helped faculty mentors purchase reagents to support the student research, and enabled students to attend national conferences to present their research results and participate in undergraduate research competitions.”
"In doing all of this, the students take away from the experience a deep respect for research that stays with them throughout their future years and careers," Heuertz said.

Students work alongside SLU faculty researchers from a variety of disciplines, including clinical health sciences, pediatrics, and nutrition and dietetics. They receive two or more semesters of mentored research experience, the opportunity to publish their research in peer-reviewed journals, and the ability to present their research at conferences in St. Louis and across the country. Students have completed research in fields such as cancer, neuroscience, bacterial biofilms and antimicrobial resistance, sickle cell anemia, and protein regulation.

Heuertz and one of her DeNardo Scholar undergraduate students, Nilan Patel, presented research results from the project “Swarming behavior of Pseudomonas aeruginosa,” a study that assessed the swarming behavior of a pathogen responsible for many infections, such as those seen in patients with burns, chronic infections and cystic fibrosis. Through funding from the DeNardo Foundation, Patel was able to present his research at three venues over the past year, including the 2023 SLU Institute for Drug and Biotherapeutic Innovation (IDBI) Research Symposium, in which he won second place in the undergraduate research competition); the 2023 Discover BMB Conference, which is the annual conference of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; and the 2023 Sigma Xi Research Symposium (SLU Chapter).

Because of this experience, students gain critical research experience early in their undergraduate studies, which leads them toward successful futures. DeNardo Scholars who have graduated from SLU have continued their education at impressive research institutions or pursued careers at industry-leading companies. Heuertz shared that the program has cultivated an appreciation for research and a uniquely profound opportunity to put classwork into action.

“This is excellent for bringing the classroom into the laboratory,” Heuertz said. “It’s in the laboratory, when the students are there doing an experiment, where they learn firsthand the things that we teach in the classroom.”

Heuertz and the SLU community see the program as a pipeline — cultivating the next generation of researchers. With a decade of supporting undergraduate student research under its belt, the future of research continues to shine brightly across campus and into the world.

Story by Mary Pogue, senior copywriter, Paradigm.

This piece was written for the 2023 SLU Research Institute Annual Impact Report. The Impact Report is printed each spring to celebrate the successes of our researchers from the previous year and share the story of SLU's rise as a preeminent Jesuit research university. Design, photography, and some writing contributions are made by Paradigm. More information can be found here.