Manjari ’20 and Noah ’21 presenting their research on spinal cord injury treatment.
According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, spinal cord injury (SCI) affects over 17,500 individuals annually within the United States. After hearing this statistic, two undergraduate researchers, Manjari Lokender and Noah Burket, decided to focus their efforts on finding a clinically approved treatment for SCI.
Manjari and Noah are currently studying biology within the College of Science at Purdue. During their first couple of semesters on campus, both students reached out to Dr. Jianming Li, a research assistant professor within the College of Veterinary Medicine and Department of Basic Medical Services, to ask about participating in his SCI-focused lab.
“When I first learned that we currently have no clinically approved treatment for spinal cord injury, I became interested in learning more about Dr. Li’s lab,” says Manjari ’20. “Though I was initially intimidated by the idea of research, I soon learned how easy it is to learn any skill if you just reach out and ask for help.”
In order to find a treatment, Dr. Li’s lab is investigating the use of antigen-presenting nanoparticles to alter immune responses. Using animal models, Manjari and Noah, with the help of Dr. Li and graduate student, Bhavani Gopalakrishnan, are assessing the therapeutic effect of these nanoparticles on functional outcomes. In other words, they are performing a series of tests to evaluate how the nanoparticles induce healing in paralyzed mice.
“At the fundamental level, we’re trying to increase inflammation after spinal cord injury whereas traditional dogma states we should do the opposite,” says Dr. Li. “However, by increasing the number of certain beneficial immune cells at the injury site with the nanoparticles, we hope to promote tissue repair and perhaps even encourage regeneration. The work these students are doing is really at the forefront of some unique ideas.”
“Spinal cord injuries are not only extremely debilitating, but also come with heavy financial burdens for patients and their families due to the astronomical cost of procedures and medical management,” says Noah ’21. “Any research to help advance our knowledge may benefit these patients. I have a cousin who was left paralyzed after getting into an accident, so I have been able to witness the multiple issues that SCI causes.”
Though I was initially intimidated by the idea of research, I soon discovered how easy it is to learn any skill if you just reach out and ask for help.Manjari Lokender ’20
Results from previously performed tests, including a balance beam test to measure motor skills and an open field activity test, show that the proposed treatment may have some therapeutic benefit. Since presenting their work at the 2019 Fall Undergraduate Research Expo, Manjari and Noah have collected more data and are working to detect any potential patterns in sensorimotor skills.
“This research project is incredibly promising, since we are using nanoparticles that have been proven to cause an effective immune response before,” says Manjari. “If we can figure out a clear way to study them and how they are affecting the mice in our lab, I think it would lead to major steps in developing a treatment for those suffering from spinal cord injury.”
Through participating in undergraduate research, both students have been able to discover the type of work that motivates them, as well as learn the value of teamwork, good communication, and failure.
“Prior to beginning research, I had a simplistic view of what research was supposed to be. However, I got much more than I bargained for when I started,” says Noah. “Research is both extremely rewarding and frustrating. It comes with many failed experiments and late nights analyzing data. However, through all these experiences, I have learned that failure is a part of learning. Not only has this realization helped me with research, but in my own life, whether it be working on homework or studying for the MCAT exam. Failure is a catalyst for knowledge.
“At an institution like Purdue, your possibilities for research are nearly limitless. Find a project or lab that you are passionate about and go for it.”
“Dr. Li and Bhavani have both been amazing mentors throughout this whole process,” says Manjari. “Through their guidance, I’ve been able to feel confident in my data analysis skills. They encourage me to present my work and learn as much as I can, whether it is at lab meetings or research expos. I can’t say thank you enough.”
Through all these experiences, I have realized that failure is a part of learning. Not only has this realization helped me with research, but in my own life, whether it be working on homework or studying for the MCAT exam. Failure is a catalyst for knowledge.Noah Burket ’22