Nutrition and dietetics major scores coveted spot in summer research program

Leah Ellis

Sophomore Leah Ellis has been accepted into this summer’s Translational Obesity Undergraduate Research Scholars (TOUR-Scholars) program at Virginia Tech, a distinction that makes her the first Radford University student to attend.

Founded in 2018, TOUR-Scholars is a summer-length initiative that prepares students for higher medical education in translational obesity research. Those who participate conduct studies in nutrition, exercise, body weight regulation, healthy behaviors and systems sciences under the auspices of the Center for Transformative Research on Health Behaviors. The program is funded by a National Institute of Health R25 Research Education Grant.

Through TOUR-Scholars, participants are paired with a faculty mentor to complete a research project, and they receive a $5,250 stipend to work 40 hours a week from May 22 through July 28. The annual program is open to about 10 Virginia Tech undergraduates, but each year at least one additional spot is offered to a student outside the university.

In addition to being the first Highlander to become a TOUR-Scholar, Ellis will be the only external student attending this year.

“I’m just a sophomore, and there’s usually only one spot open, so I was very appreciative to have the opportunity to work with them,” she explained. “When I got the email … I’m definitely not an emotional person, but I became emotional when I saw it. It’s life-changing for me.”

Ellis is a nutrition and dietetics major from Fredericksburg, Virginia, and through her project, she plans to investigate the effects of non-nutritive sweeteners on the human body. That’s similar to a project she undertook last summer when she received a Student Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarship (OURS).

Her SURF research project involved sampling and evaluating blood plasmas to assess inflammation concentrations, which are used to predict an individual’s chances of having inflammation-based health issues such as strokes or myocardial infarctions.

Although still only in her second year, Ellis launched herself into her work as early as she could, largely through Radford’s Highlander Research Rookies Program, in which students work alongside a faculty mentor for about five hours a week over three semesters.

“Highlander Research Rookies is actually where I got started, when I found out that it allows students to pursue their own individual interests,” she said. “I latched onto it quickly because in high school, we did not have any of these types of resources available.”

She was made aware of the program by her Research Rookies mentor, associate professor Melissa Grim with the College of Education and Human Development. 

“I’ve been working with Leah since she’s been a freshman, and she has this really keen interest in doing research, and it just looked like an excellent opportunity for her,” Grim said. “I can’t say I’ve ever had a student that has been that driven to do research, especially as a freshman.”

Grim said she believes Ellis will ultimately earn her Ph.D. and continue as a professional researcher, an ambition that Ellis confirmed.

“Having the TOUR-Scholar program be NIH-funded is very important to me because my dream job would be to do nutritional research for the NIH,” Ellis said.

Among other tasks this year, TOUR-Scholars will also attend weekly meetings, take part in the VT Summer Research Orientation Day on May 23 and visit the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. 

Apr 14, 2023
Neil Harvey