September 2014 Newsletter Article

MSU Marshall Scholar ‘Sees’ Ways To Integrate Stem, Humanities In Research

Craig Pearson says his undergraduate research at Michigan State University helped him become a Marshall Scholar.  (Photo Courtesy of Kurt Stepnitz).

By Shareé Fink

Craig Pearson is just one of several thousand undergraduates at Michigan State University who are actively engaged in research and creative activity every year, side by side with graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and faculty members. But Pearson, recently named a Marshall Scholar, really took to heart that common advice that college counselors give to students: leverage your opportunities.

He entered MSU as an Alumni Distinguished Scholarship recipient in the Honors College. During his freshman year, Pearson joined a research team on campus that investigated the effects of microcracks on the human skeleton. His team focused specifically on how microcracks affect the behavior of bone-healing cells, and his job was to grow, feed and maintain populations of these cells.

Farming bone-healing cells is no easy task, he recalls. “We had to maintain rigorous sanitation measures to prevent contamination,” Pearson explains. “The tasks we performed required both careful and precise lab work, and hours of computer analysis.”

Then he worked on a project to develop a drug delivery device to treat an inherited form of blindness, in which the light-sensitive molecule required for vision is depleted. His team developed an injectable device that consists of a biocompatible polymer with the vision molecule encapsulated inside. After the capsule is safely injected directly into the eye, the dose is released gradually as the polymer naturally dissolves.

“The result of our experiments was the development of a technique that creates not just one large capsule for injection, but a collection of microcapsules,” Pearson explains. “This not only makes injection easier and safer, but also allows greater control of the sustained release.”

This research project was particularly meaningful to Pearson.

“In high school,” he says, “I volunteered at a school for children with disabilities. I remember one day we were cooking, and I went around the class, letting the students smell the ingredients that they were using in the food. I reached one visually impaired student and, as soon as he smelled the cinnamon, his face lit up. Right then, I knew I could make a difference and change the way people move through the world.”

By his sophomore year, Pearson had decided to combine his two passions, science and literature. He became a triple major in biochemistry and molecular biology, neuroscience and English. And then he thought of a way to bring his varied research and creative interests together into something that would have an impact: an online journal created by and for the visually impaired.

He had discovered that many of the online resources for the blind and visually impaired were related to employment and professional advancement. There weren’t as many outlets that specifically provided the community with a means for creative expression, which Pearson found disappointing.

“But everyone kept telling me: if it’s not out there, you can develop it,” he says.

Along with some personal friends, fellow English majors, and volunteers from disability centers around MSU’s campus, Pearson created Exceptions: The Art and Literary Journal for Students with Visual Disabilities. The publication, an online, submission-based website for art and writing, includes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, art and interviews with both established and upcoming artists who are blind or visually impaired.

By his senior year, Pearson was serving as an undergraduate research assistant in the MSU Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences and the undergraduate lab manager and lead undergraduate researcher for the MSU Digital Humanities and Literary Cognition Lab. He also was a clinical volunteer at the MSU Department of Neurology and Ophthalmology. He became the student managing editor for ReCUR, the Red Cedar Undergraduate Research Journal.

Now an alumnus of MSU, Pearson is continuing his studies with the support of a prestigious Marshall Scholarship ‒ a graduate fellowship that funds two to three years of study at any institution in the United Kingdom ‒ as well as the National Institutes of Health Oxford-Cambridge Scholarship, a collaborative U.S.-U.K. program that funds a four-year doctoral degree. Through these combined fellowships, he currently is pursuing his doctorate in clinical neurosciences at the University of Cambridge.

Pearson has some advice for aspiring undergraduate researchers.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of research you do. I have worked on projects that lie a fair distance outside of my major. It’s not about being picky and finding a project that matches exactly what you think you should be doing,” he says.

“Research is all about discovering something new,” he adds. “Have a good attitude. Always say, `Yes.’ If you work hard and put your heart into it, you can’t go wrong.”