WWU Mentor-Mentee Program Helps Save Lives of Premature Infants

Dr. Joseph Kyger and Kathryn GoldenBy Tara Boehl ’09


A William Woods University professor and student are working together to improve the lives of premature infants.


At 5 p.m. Wednesday (April 29) they will discuss aspects of their research project in Aldridge Lounge on campus. The event is free and open to the public.


Kathryn Golden, a senior biology major from Crystal Lake, Ill., has been working with Dr. Joseph Kyger, WWU assistant professor of chemistry, to research the absorption of calcium in babies born before full term.


Their research will help medical professionals decide what calcium supplements are most beneficial to premature infants, ultimately helping to save their lives.


Golden and Kyger are participating in the William Woods Mentor-Mentee program. This unique program provides students with opportunities for substantive research or creative experiences with faculty members. It was established in 1995 as a platform for faculty and students interested in working together.


Typically, Mentor-Mentee projects last for an academic year, starting in the fall and concluding toward the end of the spring semester. For Kyger and Golden, it has been a two-year endeavor.


They conduct their research at the University of Missouri Research Reactor Center. There they developed an original procedure for measuring the concentration of calcium in premature infant fecal samples provided by MU Professor Dr. Laura Hillman, the principal researcher of the project. 


The fecal samples were taken from infants fed lactose and maltose formulas during different weeks using a dual tracer method where calcium isotopes were administered orally and intravenously.  Kyger and Golden are checking calcium intake to determine which was best absorbed.


During the third trimester of pregnancy, the bone mineral content of infants rapidly increases. To maintain growth and sustain the health of premature infants as if they were in utero, it is essential to accurately mimic the womb environment.


Regulating calcium absorption in premature infants is crucial for bone formation, as 99 percent of the calcium in the human body is found in the bones and the teeth.


Last year, when looking for a student mentee, Kyger knew he needed to find a capable and reliable student to handle and understand the complex research. That search led him straight to Golden, who plans to study veterinary medicine at the University of Illinois after graduation from WWU.


 “I hadn’t really given much thought to research or lab work,” she said. “When I first started this project I felt like my weakest subject was chemistry and that this project would help me round that out. I was also excited to get some practical experience with techniques that I was learning about in class.”


Golden says that it ended up being much more.


“One of the great things about William Woods University is that you get to have close contact with professors. My Mentor-Mentee relationship with Dr. Kyger has been priceless. He opened my eyes to research; he opened me up to a new world of science that I love. I truly enjoy working on this project.”


Kyger sees this research as one of the best things he has ever done.


“How could you not enjoy doing something that saves children? I feel like this project means so much because we are ultimately saving lives and working for the betterment of everyone.”


Golden agrees.


“Premature infants are rather common. Many years ago, these babies simply would not make it. The research we are doing affects everyone who has or someday wants children. We are helping to provide answers and reduce confusion on how best to improve the well being and life of premature babies.”


WWU is one of a relatively small number of universities that provide undergraduate students with opportunities to become involved in research and creative work.


In the past, mentee-students have published project results in academic or professional journals, given formal presentations at academic and scientific meetings, conducted presentation for groups or organizations external to the university, written analytical computer programs or produced original pieces of art or held artistic exhibitions and workshops.


Dr. Mary Spratt, Cox Distinguished Professor of Science, is one of the Mentor-Mentee Program coordinators and she knows just how important and beneficial this program has been.


“It’s a wonderful way for students to have a chance to do independent research and collaborate on creative projects with a faculty member,” she said. “It sets undergraduate students apart from the majority when applying for graduate school or entering the work force.”