Students are the life force of my research lab, and I want them to become independent scientists through being fully engaged in all aspects of the scientific process.
What three words would you use to describe Lewis & Clark?
Rogers Summer Science Research, July 2023
Tell us about your summer research.
In a single human individual, there are thousands, perhaps even millions, of different types of cells, which contribute to the vast variety of functions that must be performed in the body. What is intriguing is that every cell is (in general) genetically identical, having arisen from one single cell. This occurs because of differences in gene expression, leading to specific functions being available in each different cell-type. Many groups, including mine, want to answer the question of how gene expression is regulated to achieve different cell-types. My lab, in particular, focuses on genomic sequences that contribute to gene regulation, such as promoters and enhancers, and we really want to understand how the sequences themselves inform cell-type specific gene activation.
How did you become interested in your research topic? What sort of real-world implications does your research have?
One of the questions that I asked years ago, back when I first started learning biology, was “If every cell in the human body has the same DNA, then how do we get all these different body parts?” While “It’s complex” was a very unsatisfactory answer at the time, the question kind of stuck with me. So, I’ve always had a strong interest in how gene expression is regulated, and during my training as a student and postdoc, it led me to the labs I worked in. Gene regulation is not only fundamental to development but also other areas of biology and medicine. Mutations to promoters and enhancer underlie evolutionary changes and speciation, and they also contribute to a variety of human diseases.
How are students involved?
Students are the life force of my research lab, and I want them to become independent scientists through being fully engaged in all aspects of the scientific process: asking questions, designing and carrying out experiments, and collecting and analyzing their own data. They also get to present their work at meetings and seminars, and if they do an honors thesis, they also write about their work. Sometimes, they know more about the progress of their own projects and results than I do!
What would prospective students find most interesting about this research?
My research lab asks questions about biological events that happen at a molecular level, which we cannot observe with the naked eye or even microscopes. So, then comes the question, how can we ever “look” at what we’re interested in. What I think is amazing and fun about my research is that we have a toolkit of methods to interrogate what happens molecularly in cells.
What do you enjoy most about collaborating with Lewis & Clark students?
Working and collaborating with students in my research lab is probably one of the most rewarding parts of my job. First, I love the energy and optimism that they bring to the lab. Even when a method or the cells are not cooperating, they are eager to troubleshoot and solve it. And, of course, they see the fun and joy (and perhaps some silliness) in the lab work. Second, because working in my lab is often a student’s first major research experience, I get to see my students grow as scientists and human beings, during the years that they’re at L&C and beyond.
How does Lewis & Clark/this summer research experience prepare your students for a career and/or advanced studies after graduation?
Research experiences, whether through laboratory classes, independent study, or honors thesis during the academic year (or summer internships) are all valuable and important in preparing for many careers and graduate studies. In any of these, even during some of our introductory science courses, you are practicing the process of the science: asking new questions, designing and performing experiments to answer those questions, analyzing and interpreting your data, and synthesizing new ideas. Developing those skills is essential for any career in the sciences after graduation.
The summer research experience is different from coursework, independent study, and honors thesis in that, without classes and other commitments, you get to put your full time and attention to research. So, this is an opportunity to gauge whether you would want to do career focused in research and/or pursue graduate studies, where you are primarily doing research to complete your degree.