Hilltop take note: Georgetown isn’t all about politics and international relations. It’s also a hotbed of scientific research.

At the Medical Center and on the main campus, students and faculty are pursuing research on a range of topics, some of which is leading the field in discovery.

“My workload is about 40 percent teaching, 40 percent research and about 20 percent for departmental things,” said Rachel Barr, a Psychology Department faculty member. Barr walks a fine line between managing her teaching duties and her research for the Georgetown Early Learning Project.

“Basically what we’re doing is looking at how learning and memory develop in the first two years of life,” Barr said about her own pet project. “And in particular, over the past four years, the focus has been whether or not kids can pick up information from different sources.”

As part of the project, Barr is conducting a study of how children respond to a controlled game on television; a person on the screen removes a glove from a puppet in varying patterns, and the child is asked to duplicate the action.

“It’s a really exciting game if you’re under two,” Barr said. “Between six and 18 months, kids love the fact that things come on and off.”

Twelve undergraduate students are working on Barr’s research team.

The New Zealand native said that she was first inspired to study learning in children after earning her Ph.D. in developmental psychology from the University of Otago. She was looking for postdoctoral work when the University of Otago presented her with a new opportunity to study learning habits in youngsters.

“I sort of fell into it,” Barr said. “I thought the project sounded interesting, and I ended up staying for five years.”

Rebecca Riggins, a postdoctoral fellow a Georgetown’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, also took the scenic route to her current focus on breast cancer research.

Riggins said that she planned on studying biology in college, but was reluctant to pursue the biological sciences because funding for that type of research has been low in recent years.

“Right around the time I woke up to that reality, I took a course in microbiology that dealt with bacteria, viruses and parasites, and I loved it,” Riggins added. “I thought, `This is what I want to do.'”

For more than two years, Riggins has been studying how breast cancer tumors respond to drugs that are frequently used to treat female patients. Between 2-15 percent of all breast cancer cases are unresponsive to common treatments that block the estrogen that cancerous tumors depend on.

The research is promising. Riggins is on the frontline of an international search for new breast cancer treatments.

While Riggins concentrates on her postdoctoral work, a Medical Center student is already getting credit for research he began a year before his arrival. Second-year medical student Phillip Van began his work as a post-baccalaureate research fellow at the NIH before arriving at Georgetown in 2004.

Van, along with a cohort of researchers, sought to determine why women with Turner syndrome – a rare genetic disorder caused by a defective chromosome that only affects females – are at higher risk for coronary disease.

“Personally, I got a lot of clinical experience working with the women with Turner syndrome,” he said. “I learned a lot about medicine through my exposure to [different fields] in the research hospital.”

Van, who hopes to become a clinical physician, still retains a smaller role as a research volunteer while attending school full-time at Georgetown. Most of his NIH work consists of preparing manuscripts and papers for publishing.

Looking through the microscope, Barr, Riggins and Van have each researched a particular subfield of science at Georgetown. Through a broader lens, however, the three contribute to a worldwide community of scientific understanding.

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