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Beck Fellowship leads Nikoloutsos to Taiwan

Lamar University junior, Nicolas Nikoloutsos will be working on experimental procedures in nanomedicine under the direction of Che-Ming Jack Hu of Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan during the summer as one of two 2016 David J. Beck Fellows.

Nic NikoloutsosNikoloutsos, an electrical engineering and physics dual degree student with a double major in mathematics, was selected as one of two undergraduate students to receive the Beck Fellowship. The Beck Fellowship, endowed by David J. Beck, a Lamar alumnus, is a prestigious scholarship that covers all expenses including tuition, fees, books and on-campus room and board for one year and provides up to $10,000 for a summer project. 

“I’m excited,” he said. “I want to make use of all my summers, and the Beck Fellowship gives me the opportunity to tailor my summer project to exactly what I want to do.”

While in Taiwan, the Vidor native said he will engage in cutting-edge work bridging nanoscience and medicine to design drug delivery methods.

“I will be working in the biomedical sciences department with Dr. Hu, and I imagine I will be continuing on what he has done in the past,” he said. “He is the principal investigator of a newer lab there which will allow me to work closely with him on his research in developing methods of drug delivery for nanoparticles utilizing the technique of biomimetics.

“They use a lot of biomimicry in their work, which is basically the idea that biology has already figured out a lot of ways to tackle problems that we face, and if we look at biology we can copy these ideas and implement them ourselves. By mimicking the known processes of biological systems, researchers, such as Dr. Hu, are able to treat ailments in novel ways.”

Nikoloutsos said drug delivery is one of the biggest problems in medicine today.

 “You have this drug that will alleviate symptoms or fight a disease, but the drug has to get to very specific places in very complex biological systems,” he said. “A lot of times you administer extremely large doses and hope that some small amount gets to exactly where you want it to go, but you can’t always do that with every drug. Some drugs are toxic in large amounts.”

The field of drug delivery has great potential to improve the quality of life for those suffering from diseases, Nikoloutsos said.

“If we can find really efficient ways and gain a high enough accuracy, we can control where our drugs go, and we can use less drugs and be more specific with the drugs we use,” he said. “We could use toxic drugs at higher dosages because we know it’s only going to go to one spot, and then it’ll easily perform its purpose.”

His summer research will be relevant to his current background of mammalian cell culturing and cancer research, Nikoloutsos said.

“A lot of these drug delivery systems we’ll be working on could be adapted for cancer research,” he said. “We might even, if any are simple or applicable enough, be able to expand upon them back here at Lamar and initialize a research collaboration with Academia Sinica.”

Nikoloutsos discovered his summer project after talking to his mentor, Ian Lian, assistant professor of biology.  

“The person I will be working with is actually someone Dr. Lian knows because they went to the same Ph.D. program,” he said. “When I told Dr. Lian that I wanted to try for the Beck Fellowship, he gave me a huge list of suggestions for potential projects and people he knew. I started looking through these and Dr. Hu stood out to me.”

In the summer of his freshman year, Nikoloutsos teamed up with Lian to work on cancer and stem cell research, working on developing cell culture techniques that consider the microenvironments in which the cells are grown.

“We don’t just culture them in a regular plastic or glass dish,” he said. “We have our dishes coated with a kind of a jelly-like silicone-based substrate that can have different stiffnesses that are more like the stiffnesses of the tissues in the body. This makes a profound effect on how the cancer cells grow. They’re really responsive to what they are exposed to.”

Nikoloutsos said this type of culture results in a more realistic depiction of how cancer cells appear in the body.

“They actually end up making 3D shapes like they’re known to in the body; tumors are normally amorphous shapes and not flat,” he said. “When you culture them in just regular dishes, you have these flat sheets of cancer cells that you would never find in someone’s body, and you’re testing your drugs on those, and that’s not very accurate.”

While at Lamar, Nikoloutsos has presented his cancer research at Posters on the Hill in Washington, D.C., conducted independent mathematics research, and participated in the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program.

“At most larger institutions I wouldn’t be able to get my hands on research until around now, but I’ve already gotten so much experience here,” he said. “I’ll get go into graduate school with a strong research background.”

Nikoloutsos plans to pursue a doctoral degree in bioengineering with aspirations to become a research scientist.

“I think I might specialize in genetic circuits, because if you understand genetic circuitry you can understand a lot more about how complex biological processes happen, such as aging,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed my experience with research so far. I really like science, and discovery, and understanding the world. It doesn’t feel like a job to me.”

Nikoloutsos said he believes his Lamar education has prepared him for future endeavors.

“I’m really glad I chose Lamar,” he said. “The fact that I’ve had all of these great research opportunities will likely be the key to success.”