Three St. Bonaventure undergraduate students had the opportunity to share their genetics research with peers, educators and researchers at an international conference sponsored by the Genetics Society of America.
Samantha Terhaar, Preet Sohal, and Vivien Pat attended The Allied Genetics Conference July 13-17 in Orlando with Dr. Douglas Guarnieri, assistant professor of biology at St. Bonaventure.
The conference featured hundreds of lectures, exhibitions and presentations on research from seven genetics communities, including yeast, zebrafish, mouse and ciliate, as well as more than a dozen keynote programs with prominent speakers such as National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.
In addition to interacting with some of the top geneticists in the world, the students shared their own research, “Gene expression and regulation in food restricted mice,” via a poster presentation.
They studied gene expression in mice that had had their food reduced to 75 percent of a normal diet.
Food restriction — which acts as a mild stressor — is known to increase lifespan, motivation and cognition. But chronic stress can lead to mental illness.
“Since we are finding similar genes induced in mild and chronic stress paradigms, we’re getting at the RNA level to try to understand which genes are adaptive and which are maladaptive, or what is the molecular difference between good and bad stress?” Guarnieri said.
“We found the stress genes get turned on when food is restricted in mice. If that’s happening in the brain, we wondered if we can see that in other organs,” he said. In addition to genes in the brain, the students studied the kidneys of the mice. They worked collaboratively on the research project, but each had a specific area of focus in the lab.
PAT WAS TRYING to identify and characterize glucocorticoid response elements (GREs) in the enhancer regions of genes that have been shown to be up-regulated in the mouse brain upon food-restriction. She was able to learn and apply a diverse set of molecular science techniques as well as use some bioinformatics in her research. Pat has been working in Guarnieri’s lab for two years, starting in the spring of her sophomore year. The senior biology major is from Toronto and is studying abroad in France this fall.
Terhaar’s research focused on using bioinformatics to identify sequences that are potential GREs in the same genes that Pat was analyzing. She hopes to use molecular techniques to determine whether or not these sequences are actually functional GREs. If it proves successful, this would be a novel and much more cost-effective method of locating GREs in the genome than the molecular techniques currently being used. Terhaar began her work in Guarnieri’s lab this past summer through the Arnold T. Borer fellowship. The junior from Olean is majoring in bioinformatics — which merges computer science, mathematics and biology.
Sohal has been using a technique called quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) to measure the changes in gene expression that occur after five-day food restriction in male mouse peripheral organs, such as the kidney, as well as a number of different brain regions. She has additionally been comparing the different genetic responses that male and female mice have to food restriction. Sohal started working in Guarnieri’s lab at the same time as Pat. This fall is her fourth semester working in his lab in addition to being a Borer Fellow in the summer of 2015. She is a senior biology major from Great Falls, Va.
GUARNIERI SAID the research the SBU students pursued and presented at the Florida conference was on par with first- and second-year grad students.
“Our poster was occupied (by visitors) at all three sessions, two hours a day,” he said. During these gatherings, student researchers are available to answer questions and discuss their posters with geneticists attending the conference.
“It made me more comfortable in my presentation skills. And I learned a lot about other topics — all of the model organisms and how the organisms overlap,” said Terhaar.
“I not only feel proud as a lab group and individual, having been able to accomplish work of that caliber, but also extremely thrilled to be able to represent the Bonnies on such a massive platform, in the midst of Nobel laureates and other brilliant scientists,” said Pat. “Our university may be small in size, but we can still make a lot of ‘noise,’ so to speak.”
This was the second time she has presented a poster; the first was in Boston at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Quality Care Symposium.
The experience inspires the students to work even harder and continue the next generation of research.
“I have realized that no dream is too big. Some of the work presented at the conference was very impressive, even just at the undergraduate level. For me, research has also opened my eyes to a very hands-on and practical nature of science beyond the textbook,” Pat said.
To Pat, one of the biggest benefits of research as an undergraduate is that it makes her think and behave like a scientist, which can help with work outside the lab. For instance, finding an answer — or lack thereof — is only a means to a new question.
“I truly understood that failure is not the end, but a learning opportunity, and even a chance to discover something new,” said Pat. “Research also requires discipline, organization, and time management skills, all of which can be applied to my other courses and even to my career. Overall, research and attending this conference has had an enormous impact on me.”
“It was a great experience. Research is making me think differently, and going to a conference of such magnitude was very inspiring and made me realize what the world of research holds. It’s something I definitely would like to continue participating in,” she said.
The students are grateful to the Department of Biology, which funded all major expenses for the trip, including travel, lodging, and conference fees, and the School of Arts & Sciences, which annually hosts a research Arts & Sciences Exposition for undergraduates. Dr. Christopher Hill in the Department of Mathematics works diligently to ensure that this event is successful on campus each spring.
The Expo, Terhaar believes, is important for student presenters and attendees as it helps prepare Bonaventure students for off-campus conferences and shows underclassmen what doing research at Bona’s is like.
“It’s really interesting to see what your peers are doing in the lab, and it’s very impressive to learn about all of the projects that Bonaventure students are working on,” she said.
“Our faculty work hard at encouraging research experiences for undergrads,” said Guarnieri, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics from Stanford University and bachelor’s degrees in biology and government from the University of Notre Dame.
Among the long-term goals of future research is to use molecular data to better understand the difference between mild and chronic stress and to continue analysis of female gene expression.
Terhaar, Pat, and Sohal all intend to pursue medical degrees at The George Washington School of Medicine & Health Sciences upon graduating from St. Bonaventure University.
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