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Summer research provides undergraduate engineering student an opportunity to work with horses


Stefanie Pagano and her research mentor, Rebecca Splan Stefanie Pagano (right) and her research mentor, Rebecca Splan, with Mae West and her foal at the Middleburg Agriculture and Research Extension Center in Middleburg, Va.

MIDDLEBURG, Va., July 17, 2012 – The rolling pastures, lazy fences, cool shelters, and big barns make up the picturesque home for dozens of horses at the Middleburg Agriculture and Research Extension Center. While the spot is the perfect haven for students and faculty in the animal science field, it’s also become the retreat of choice for one undergraduate engineering student.

Stefanie Pagano of Oakton, Va., a senior majoring in biological systems engineering in the College of Engineering and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is spending her summer living at the center as part of an immersive internship and summer research project through the Scieneering program, which focuses on blending the fields of science, engineering, and law.

The 420-acre farm is an internationally recognized sporthorse breeding facility, with two faculty members who live on-site with graduate and undergraduate students throughout the year. It houses two stallions, dozens of mares, and the foals they produce.

Pagano is one of six undergraduates taking part in the center’s summer internship. All of the other students are animal and poultry science majors, but Pagano is still in her element, even as the only engineer. “I grew up around horses. I love horses. I want horses in my life,” said Pagano. “How can I intermix the two worlds – engineering and horses? I would love to look at how racehorses coming out of the starting gate, how that force effects their joints. I've read the force is similar to if a person put all of his weight on his middle finger. I would love to look at the biomechanics of that.”

The center’s summer internship doesn’t just give undergraduates an opportunity for research. The students stay busy with the care of the horses and the upkeep of the farm. “On a daily basis, we wake up and feed the horses. The mares get an ultrasound to see what day they are on their reproductive cycle to determine when to breed them. We also do foal handling in the afternoons,” said Pagano. “Many people think horse life is glamorous, but it is actually a lot of grunt work, too – moving manure, repairing fences, and other maintenance issues to make sure these girls can live the best life possible and produce the best babies too.”

Even as an undergraduate, Pagano and the other interns are actively involved in the medical and scientific procedures at the center – from the birth of foals to assisting in ultrasounds, muscle and uterine biopsies, and glucose testing. Pagano will use the muscle biopsy samples for her summer research project evaluating the impact of resveratrol – a plant compound found in red wine – on the horses’ microRNA. The data collection is not complete yet and will need to be analyzed. “What I hope to find is that the resveratrol either up regulates or down regulates the microRNAs that are involved in the metabolic functions of the body. I don’t expect resveratrol to reverse obesity, but potentially it could be a weight loss supplement to improve glucose tolerance, absorption of insulin, and the overall metabolism of the horse.”

Pagano credits the Scieneering program with helping her figure out what to do with her life – a tough question for many college students to answer. “The Scieneering program has been great at exposing me to a lot of different things, people, and situations. I think it has really set my future path – seeing what I can do in the horse world with biomedical engineering. I’m doing research well outside of the engineering field but one day, I’ll be able to bring them back together.”

While Pagano is getting a lot out of the program, the program is getting a lot out of her as well. “Our students should be knowledgeable and capable horsemen, of course, but ultimately we want to develop them as critical, creative thinkers able to work together to solve complex problems and make science a bigger part of their daily lives,” said Rebecca Splan, associate professor and residential faculty member at the center. Splan is also Pagano’s research mentor. “Stefanie has added a new element to our team with her engineering background but passion for horses. We are lucky to have her.”

Pagano will present her research findings on her microRNA study at the Joint SURF and Scieneering Summer Research Symposium on Aug. 3, 2012, at the Inn at Virginia Tech and Skeleton Conference Center. The public is invited to attend the event. More than 100 undergraduate students will present their summer research projects.

During the summer of 2012, the Fralin Life Science Institute Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program and the Division of Undergraduate Education's Scieneering program have banded together to offer an unprecedented number of students — 82 — paid research fellowships.  Research appointments, outreach, and group activities are coordinated by Tomalei Vess, director of undergraduate research, and Keri Swaby, Scieneering program manager.  For more information, visit the Fralin Life Science SURF website and Scieneering program website.

The Division of Undergraduate Education provides academic support, programs, and courses that touch on every aspect of the undergraduate experience, from recruitment to graduation and beyond. Its offices, units, and centers advocate for ways to create and nurture a vibrant and diverse community of engaged learners, while supporting the development of innovative and dynamic faculty. The division is committed to excellence in student access, retention, and success for the university’s 24,000 undergraduate students.

A premiere Research Institute of Virginia Tech, the Fralin Life Science Institute enables and enhances collaborative efforts in research, education, and outreach within the Virginia Tech life science community through strategic investments that are often allied with colleges, departments, and other institutes.

What is Scieneering?


Virginia Tech, through funding from a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Education Grant, offers an interdisciplinary undergraduate studies and research program. Current Scieneers come from more than 10 majors and perform interdisciplinary research under the direction of more than 100 voluntary faculty mentors in an opposite discipline.

Scieneering Brochure (Revised) (PDF | 310KB)

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