The tool that’s making a big splash in science research

How zebrafish gained their popularity as a model organism

By: Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC 

The core of many modern discoveries in developmental biology is swimming in a tank.

These are zebrafish that serve as the lab rats for Anand Chandrasekhar’s research.

Dozens of tanks containing thousands of swimming fish fill the lab in the basement of the Bond Life Sciences Center. There are baby fish, striped fish and clear fish, many genetically modified for experimental reasons, and they are studied from fertilized embryo to adolescence.

Chandrasekhar’s lab uses zebrafish to study migrating motor neurons in the brainstem that control muscle movement in the face and jaw.

Multiple types of neurons positioned precisely throughout the brain connect together to form networks. Those networks give the brain its ability to function.

“For us, it is important to study how these networks form because the brain is what makes us human,” said the Bond Life Sciences Center researcher.

During development, neurons respond to signals that enable them to move to different locations and form networks, Chandrasekhar explained. If the neurons don’t migrate properly to specific locations then the brain can’t function properly.

It is a domino effect. If the brain stem motor neurons don’t migrate correctly then the corresponding neural networks don’t form correctly and then the fish are not able to eat well.

Chandrasekhar’s lab is captivated by this migration. Different neurons move different ways and are set into motion by different signals. What are the signals to tell the neurons to stop or to go? Do these signals vary based on neuron type and species?

The lab also seeks to understand the repercussions of deficient migration using genetically modified fish.

Cell migration doesn’t just occur in the brain or with nerve cells. Cells also need to move in particular ways to form the heart and to fight infections.

A Model Swimmer

The zebrafish has long joined traditional lab rats and mice as scientists’ choice as an ideal test subject.

“When I first started out I wasn’t entirely sure I could do that (work with zebrafish), because how am I expected to handle something in water, moving around and be able to use it to really do experiments?” Chandrasekhar said. “But once you see how you handle fish, how you get them together, it just becomes one more thing that you do and then it makes you wonder how people work with mice.”

Like other model organisms, zebrafish share many genetic similarities with humans. These similarities mean researchers can investigate cancer, heart disease, muscle and tissue disorders in humans by testing and studying fish.

Mice and rats also share a large portion of DNA with humans, but the zebrafish’s unique characteristics enable experiments and observations to be cheap, efficient and fast.

One of those unique traits is a rapid development rate. This allows researchers to study important developmental stages in a single week.

“They’re incredibly efficient in terms of, I can set them up and they’ll be ready tomorrow morning,” said Ph.D. student Devynn Hummel.

The fact that embryo development in mice occurs inside their mother also makes observing early stages of development hard. Zebrafish embryos, on the other hand, grow independently, outside the mother.

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Neurons in the hindbrain of a zebrafish embryo are illuminated due to the use of florescent chemicals. The branchiomotor neurons are labeled with green and the commissural axons are labeled with red. | Photo by Suman Gurung

The young zebrafish’s transparency also helps researchers track cells within its body.

Hummel explained that by using fluorescently tagged molecules we are able to zero in on anything from neurons to changes in calcium concentrations, allowing fish to be used in a wide range of different studies.

“We’ve sort of engineered them to allow us to look at different tissues,” Hummel explained. “It really is remarkable the details in imaging zebrafish and what you can see. It’s truly extraordinary.”

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An eye of a zebrafish is illuminated 48-hours after fertilization using immunohistochemistry.| Photo by Suman Gurung

Scientists throughout the world are catching on to the advantages of the fish.

Chandrasekhar said there are significantly more zebrafish labs throughout the world than there were 20 years ago.

Despite its advantages, the zebrafish will not completely replace mice as a lab tool.

Chandrasekhar explained there are still certain experiments where mice are more advantageous. The same area of research can be explored using zebrafish, mice or even fruit flies, but the specific questions you ask change based on the tools available.

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A snail toxin, MVIIA, is illuminated in a zebrafish embryo. The toxin blocks calcium channels needed for neurotransmitter release. Chandrasekhar’s lab studies motor neurons using zebrafish. | Photo by Devynn Hummel

Beyond Nerves

While Chandrasekhar’s lab concentrates on neurons, understanding how the migration occurs can be applied in a different context because of shared cellular mechanisms.

“Some of these molecules are just tools that different types of cells can use in different ways to accomplish different functions,” he said. “You can study a steering wheel in a car and know that it’s allowing the wheels to turn and the same steering wheel in a truck is allowing the wheels to turn in a truck, but maybe at a different time and a different way.”

Members of Chandrasekhar’ lab already experienced a broader implication of their research when a gene they studied with a role in neuron migration provided insight on Spina bifida, a failure of the fetal spinal cord to close completely.

“We all hope the problem we study has a broader impact on human biology so there’s always a quest to dig deeper and learn something new,” Chandrasekhar said.

The lab is hoping one day soon this fishy tool will help shed even more light on the mechanisms maintaining human health. For now, the researchers and their fish will just keep swimming.

With more than 2,000 fish, the lab has no plans on slowing down.

Anand Chandrasekhar is a Biological Sciences professor at the University of Missouri. He uses mice and zebrafish to study the mechanisms involved with the development of the nervous system. His lab in Bond LSC uses cell biological and genetic methods to understand these mechanisms. He received his Ph.D. in biology from the University of Iowa.

 

 

 

Paul Caldo #IAmScience

Paul Caldo
By Allison Scott | Bond LSC 

“#IAmScience because research allows me to challenge my understanding of the world around me and strive toward figuring out the unknown.”

Paul Caldo isn’t your typical undergraduate student. As a junior, Caldo is double majoring in Biology and Psychology, which gives him a unique perspective on science as a whole.

It is in the overlap between his majors, however, that most interests him.

“I am fascinated with development in both psychology and biology because the early stages of life lay the foundation for who and what you will become,” he said. “I have an appreciation for all spheres of academia, and it is becoming more evident to me that an interdisciplinary approach to research will lead to more and more breakthroughs in science.”

As a member of both Dr. Cheryl Rosenfeld’s biology lab in Bond LSC and Dr. Ashley Groh’s psychology lab in Noyes Hall, Caldo gets the best of both worlds while studying the fields he loves. In Rosenfeld’s lab, he’s currently analyzing how endocrine disruptors – which are found in everyday products like sunscreen – impact the development of reproductive organs in female mice.

“By understanding the underlying mechanisms that drive this interaction, our goal is to potentially reverse some of the harmful effects that result from heavy exposure to endocrine disruptors,” Caldo said.

His efforts have not gone unnoticed. Caldo earned a $2,000 Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities Scholarship from the Honors College, as well as a $200 travel grant that will allow him to present his findings at the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease Conference in Detroit later this month.

“I’m really excited about the travel grant to Detroit,” Caldo said. “It will be my first time attending a national-level conference. I hope to benefit from presenting my work as well as learning from many great scientists from across the country. I think it will be a really enriching experience, and I hope to take away a lot from it.”

After graduation, Caldo hopes to attend graduate school to study developmental psychology using an interdisciplinary bio-behavioral approach to answer research questions. Ultimately, his plan is to earn a PhD in developmental psychology. Until then, though, he’s enjoying his time at Bond LSC learning as much as possible.

“The ambiance is great – working closely with some of the best researchers on campus is an amazing feeling,” Caldo said.

Bond Life Sciences grant leads to revolutionary way to create vaccines

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Researchers Jeffrey Adamovicz, Bret Ulery, and Dong Xu work together to develop a vaccine in a novel way. The trio received a Bond Life Sciences Center seed grant to fund their interdisciplinary research. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

By Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

What happens when a chemical engineer, a computer scientist, and an immunologist walk into a lab?

Vaccines are created faster and cheaper.

At least this trio hopes that’s the answer.

Bond Life Sciences Center computer scientist Dong Xu joined forces with immunologist Jeffery Adamovicz and chemical engineer Bret Ulery for the first time in February 2016. After 18 months and a $100,000 Bond Life Sciences startup grant, the team is closing in on a novel approach to vaccinations. They hope to start collecting initial data in the near future.

“Without this grant, it would be hard to work together,” Xu said. “Bond Life Sciences Center really played an important role for the collaboration research on campus and also for providing this seed money. They really foster these types of collaboration.”

The Problem

Efficiency has plagued the vaccination field for decades.

Traditionally, scientists create new vaccines by continuously guessing which components of the virus or bacteria to test.

“It was a plug-and-play type test system,” explained Adamovicz, who has researched vaccines for years. “We said, ‘well we could try this antigen or that antigen or that antigen and you would mix them together in different combinations and try them and then you would end up selecting one that would work.”

The process is similar to finding a needle in a haystack. It’s like scientists sort through and test every strand of hay until they discovered the needle.

As you can imagine, this method takes a long time to find something usable.

This process becomes a larger issue when viruses emerge that call for immediate measures, such as Zika or Ebola.

Creating vaccines can take a long time because sometimes a variety of different related bacteria cause illnesses. This makes that already inefficient guessing game more complicated by adding, even more, components to test.

Adamovicz explained scientists make a new vaccine each year by predicting which strain of the disease will infect the most people. This is why many people who get a flu vaccination can still get the flu — the strain they caught was not included in the vaccine.

The Solution

Xu, Ulery and Adamovicz decided to combine their strengths from their different fields to approach creating a vaccine in a new way to solve these two problems.

Adamovicz explained this type of collaboration is not routinely attempted when developing new vaccines.

Computer science and engineering enabled the team to more easily sort through thousands of potential options. Xu’s lab and his students created an algorithm to select candidates to test. Without Xu, the team would have to test tens of thousands of different antigen and peptide combinations. But with the algorithm, the team narrowed the combinations to about 10 to test.

Adamovicz said this method has the potential to create vaccines in half the normal time.

“I feel that it is a very meaningful work; that’s why I am interested in doing it because I do see the potential impact,” Xu said.

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Rui Zhang, a chemical engineer, works in Bret Ulery’s lab at MU. Zhang is part of the team working with targeted nanoparticles that will induce strong immune responses. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

Putting a theory to work

Burkholderia is the first Guinea pig for their new approach.

The potentially deadly bacterial infection occurs in places like Thailand and northern Australia and is caused by a family of related bacteria called Burkholderia pseudomallei. But other strains of Burkholderia also cause disease in patients with Cystic Fibrosis across the globe.

“That was part of the challenge,” Adamovicz said. “It wasn’t that we could take a single bacterium and that’s all we had to worry about. We were worrying about a family of bacteria that had this variation in their genomic sequence and the proteins they produce.”

To eventually create a vaccine that could cure all strains of the bacteria, the team aimed to find a small piece of protein all Burkholderia had within their flagella, the whip-like structure of the bacteria that allows them to propel themselves.

To limit the number of segments within the protein, Adamovicz’s lab, on the biology side, determined some requirements for Xu to write an algorithm.

“It’s not to say this is like Star Trek where you just tell the computer and it does it on its own, it requires a lot of knowledgeable human input to spit out the answers,” said Adamovicz.

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Chunhui Xu operates a computer program to examine the protein sequence of a disease called Burkholderia. Xu is a Ph. D. student on the interdisciplinary team working to develop a vaccine against the disease. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

Adamovicz explained they wanted a vaccine that would trigger two immune responses. When harmful substances enter the body, like viruses or bacteria, the body responds in two ways. One way is through cellular immunity that responds by activating cells that already exist. The other way the body responds is by other cells making proteins called antibodies, which is called the humoral response.

The segment also had to be conservative, meaning it is less likely to mutate so there is a higher chance a vaccine would continue to be effective against the bacteria and would be effective against more members in the bacterial family. The last criteria Xu’s lab coded for ensured the protein is not similar to others found in humans.

All these limitations lowered more than three thousand possible candidates down to a testable amount and a final list of 10 candidates.

Then the research moves on to Ulery’s Lab.  Here a team of chemical engineers take the identified candidates from Xu’s work and engineer targeted vaccine antigen nanoparticles termed micelles. These micelles are comprised of fat-based cores that display vaccine antigens on their surface and have been shown to induce strong immune responses.

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Chemical engineering students Caitlin Leeper and Rui Zhang study the physical properties of micelles. The micelles are targeted antigen nanoparticles. Mice will then be injected with the micelles. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

“Most of them [subunit vaccines] are somewhat hydrophilic — water-liking peptides, portions of a protein — and we tether a fat to them and what happens is now you have something that likes water and something that doesn’t like water, and you throw it in water and they self-assemble into these small micelles,” Ulery said. “That clustering of all those peptide molecules together actually enhances the immune response to them.”

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Engineering major Caitlin Leeper operates the reaction vessel that combines peptides and lipids to form micelles. The process is part of the lab’s process to develop a vaccine using chemical and engineering methods. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

Then, the work goes back to Adamovicz to evaluate what the portions of proteins are going to make the best vaccine.

This cycle continues as all labs work to enhance and develop the design further.

“It’s a process that takes a village. It doesn’t necessarily take the whole village but you need the right people in the village to work together and that’s kind of what we’re doing,” Adamovicz explained. “We’re recognizing that there are areas in previous work that could have been better optimized.”

After months of back and forth, the team is preparing to feed infected cells some of the selected peptides, the small portions of protein. Those candidates that do well in the cell culture will be tested in mice exposed to the Burkholderia bacteria.

The team hopes this round of data collection will serve as a baseboard for future experiments. If this principle is proven in one antigen, a larger grant may enable the theory to be tested in hundreds of other antigens and applied to other diseases. Over the next four to six months, the team hopes to have a clearer vision for the future of this research.

The team credits the Bond LSC grant for bringing them together and for helping establish initial research to prove an approach like this could be impactful.

But, these types of collaborations don’t stop here.

“Previously, it was small stakeholders working on one protein their entire life, but that’s more basic research. To solve real-world problems requires many, many aspects, so the way that we are working in terms of interdisciplinary collaboration, I think that presents the future and this is already on-going in terms of an overall biology trend,” Xu explained.

Dr. Dong Xu is a professor in the University of Missouri’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department and the Bond Life Sciences Center. His Digital Biology Lab develops and uses computers and software programs to help biological and medical researchers analyze large amounts of data.

Dr. Jeffrey Adamovicz is an associate professor in Veterinary Pathobiology and the director of the Laboratory of Infectious Disease Research. He works on developing vaccines and on animal models for zoonotic diseases.

Dr. Bret Ulery is an assistant professor in MU’s Chemical Engineering Department. He directs the Biomodulatory Materials Engineering Lab that creates new biomaterials for applications in immunology and regenerative medicine. He earned his doctorate degree from Iowa State University.

 

A Ph.D. in structural virology

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Anna Gres studies HIV capsid protein using X-ray crystallography. She recently finished her five-year research project at the Bond Life Sciences Center. | photo by Roger Meissen, Bond LSC

Gres reflects on the dissertation in HIV research

By: Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

Ph.D. candidate Anna Gres frequently described her success at the Bond Life Sciences Center as being lucky.

“It was challenging and stressful, but I think everything worked out well for me and I was lucky in a way. I was fortunate to get to the good labs, interact with great people, attend courses, attend conferences and grow both professionally and personally,” she said.

Her mentors and colleagues use other words to describe her.

Bond LSC scientist and mentor Stefan Sarafianos called her “super spectacular” and her work “nothing short of outstanding” when introducing Gres before her dissertation defense on September 1.

When Gres came to the University of Missouri five years ago as a chemistry student, she knew she wanted to learn about crystallography, a technique that examines the precise arrangement of atoms and the geometry of molecules by looking at the image of the crystal under an X-ray beam. This interest led her to Sarafianos’ lab and into research on HIV.

“I learned a lot of new and exciting things, and I love this about research in general, you have multiple opportunities to evolve if you invest time,” Gres said of her time in Bond LSC. “I’m thrilled I decided to pursue a Ph.D. and do research. It’s definitely something I enjoy a lot.”

She studied a specific HIV protein. Her research involved using X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of the HIV-1 capsid protein. The capsid surrounds the virus’ genetic material, protecting it from a cell’s defenses while transporting the viral DNA to the cell nucleus. Her research produced one of the most complete models of the capsid protein. Previous attempts to understand the protein worked with engineered versions of it rather than the native version.

Gres’ research was the first to reveal the closest representation of the hexameric capsid lattice in intact HIV-1, a discovery that will open the door for further insights.

She explained this knowledge allows scientists to understand the viral life cycle better, study interactions of the viral protein with cellular proteins, further develop capsid-targeting antivirals and improve current ones.

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Anna Gres spent her time at the University of Missouri researching the shape of a protein that impacts HIV. She will be leaving HIV research behind when she moves to Sweden for a post doctorate position. | photo by Roger Meissen, Bond LSC

Gres also studied complexes of capsid protein with host cell factors and small molecules that interact with the protein and prevent infection. Other time in the lab was devoted to exploring more than 30 mutations in the protein. Around half of the mutants still need to be completed and analyzed.

Currently, no approved drugs target this protein although it plays a critical role in the virus. Previous clinical trials failed, but recently the protein re-emerged as a promising target. Earlier this year, Gilead, a biopharmaceutical company, announced it would begin capsid inhibitor testing after initial studies revealed its potential as a treatment strategy.

When Gres finished her dissertation defense, she did so with tears in her eyes as she thanked her mentors, family, and friends for their support throughout this five-year journey.

“Work can be stressful; sometimes you need to vent because ‘the project is not working.’ It’s nice when you have people who can listen to you and calm you down and tell you it’s going to work out eventually,” she said.

Her research more than worked out and will continue to provide insights on the disease that affects millions each year.

As for Gres, she is leaving HIV research and the United States behind.

Soon she will be moving to Sweden to start a post doctorate position at the Uppsala University studying chromatin remodeling factors. Gres will bring her skills in structural biology and will transition to cryo-electron microscopy. She explained the topic would be new for her, but that’s why she chose it, so she can continue learning.

Into muscles

Rebecca Craigg

Rebecca Craigg, an undergraduate biology major, studies muscle regeneration in D Cornelison’s lab. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

Undergrad’s passion spurred by mice muscle regeneration research

By: Samantha Kummerer | Bond LSC

Uncertainty and curiosity led Rebecca Craigg to work in a lab.

As a first-generation college student with an interest in science but no idea what undergraduate research entailed, her path at the University of Missouri landed her in the Bond Life Sciences Center and the lab of D Cornelison.

“I honestly thought undergraduate research meant you just followed around someone like job shadowing,” she said laughing.

Now, after almost a year of research, the junior biology major is more than familiar with what working in a lab entails.

Craigg started working in Cornelison’s lab as an effort to figure out what kind of science she might be interested in. It was while she waited for her genetically altered mice to grow up when she found something that really sparked her interest.

Rather than spend her time cleaning lab dishes, Craigg began assisting a graduate student on a project studying the role of EphA7 in mice. EphA7 is a receptor on cells that helps mediate important events within the body. Receptors create a change in the body after receiving a signal from outside the cell. The exact hows and whys behind the EphA7 are still relatively unknown.

To unravel EphA7 the team began by breeding genetically altered mice with the gene switched off. Next, specific muscles were isolated, dissected, and preserved once the mice reached different developmental time points. Researchers thinly sliced the muscle and added immunofluorescent staining to track specific elements over a period of time. They marked EphA7 with a green fluorescent and regenerating muscle fibers with red. Imaging revealed every time green came up so did red. This led researchers to understand that EphA7 is connected to how muscles rebuild.

Rebecca Craigg

Rebecca Craigg, an undergraduate researcher, works with immunoflourescent staining to mark EphA7 and muscle fibers. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

But this isn’t the only role the receptor plays.

Work this summer also discovered the gene is involved in the development of muscles. The team found at the end of development, the mice without EphA7 did not fully recover like they would have if they were not modified. When the team looked at marking for muscle stem cells, both the mice with the receptor and the mice without it had a depleted number of satellite cells, essentially muscle stem cells, that did not recover.

Craigg explained this discovery was puzzling.

In every other case heterozygous mice, the mice with one gene coded with EphA7, were fine. The team predicts the cells and muscles realized they were not adequate so the muscle stem cells began to become muscles. This process would leave fewer stem cells at the end of development.

Fewer muscle fibers really mean the mice are lacking normal muscle strength. Craigg said one reason for this could be EphA7’s relation to motor neuron axons. Motor neurons send signals from the nervous system to muscles to tell them to move. EphA7 is present on all motor neurons. The team hypothesized that the gene may play a role in guiding the motor axon to the muscle, thus without it, muscle size would decrease.

“We kind of know way more than we did, obviously, in that it’s involved in regeneration and all these things and that if a mouse doesn’t have it they have all these decreased numbers all over the board, but we don’t know why per say,” Craigg said.

To better understand why EphA7 functions the way it does, the team will begin to examine the relationship between motor neurons and EphA7. They will also explore if the type of muscle fiber, slow-twitch versus fast twitch, make a difference.

Rebecca Craigg

Rebecca Craigg looks through the microscope to closely examine a mouse’s muscle cells.| Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

Craigg said each new piece of knowledge about EphA7 is a step towards better understanding what causes muscle disease in humans.

While the lab faces a lot more work ahead, it doesn’t faze Craigg. For her, the possibility of more discoveries is part of the thrill.

“We kept finding out so many new things about it. I would be counting things and I’d be like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t wait to get this data back, like, I just want to know,’” she exclaimed.

Rebecca Craigg is a junior biology major working in the lab of D Cornelison at Bond LSC.

Women Power At Bond LSC

Melissa Mitchum, D Cornelison and Cheryl Rosenfeld

Melissa Mitchum, D Cornelison and Cheryl Rosenfeld (from left to right) of Bond Life Sciences Center were promoted to full professor on September 1, 2017.

Three Promoted to Full Professor

By MJ Rogers, Bond LSC

Scientific success largely hinges on research results, and four recent promotions at Bond Life Sciences Center celebrate that achievement.

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Laurie Erb

Cheryl Rosenfeld, D Cornelison and Melissa Mitchum of Bond Life Sciences Center were promoted to full professor as of September 1, while Laurie Erb received a promotion as a non-tenure-track research professor. They are the first female full professors in Bond LSC’s 13-year history.

University of Missouri’s Assistant Vice Chancellor of the Division of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity, Noor Azizan-Gardner, said the promotions made her optimistic.

“Three women all going up to full professor – it’s phenomenal,” she said. “And the fact that they all have labs in Bond LSC makes me deliriously happy. Not just for us and them, but for the women who will be the next generation. The ripple effect is bigger than just the three of them.”

Promotion and tenure at MU follows rigorous guidelines that take teaching, research success and service into account to advance professors through three tiers — from assistant to associate to full professorship — over more than a decade.

But like many technical fields, science lags behind in its proportion of women to men. Growing that diversity is important to the breadth of scientific inquiry. As an advocate of collaboration, the promotion of three women to full professor at Bond LSC hopes to reinforce that diversity.

Cornelison and Mitchum were quick to stress their promotions had nothing to do with their gender, and everything to do with their science.

“It just doesn’t cross my mind,” Mitchum said. “I honestly don’t walk around thinking about gender. I just do the best I can and that’s all I can do.”

Similarly, Cornelison said, “I am not a female scientist. I am a scientist. Period. It should not be a part of the story.”

Rosenfeld, however, is concerned that administrators are not giving women the support necessary to flourish in their careers.

“I work seven days a week and I deserve respect and to be taken seriously on par with my male colleagues,” she said. “I am not doing this as a hobby. This is my passion, and, hopefully in the future, women like myself will be treated equally.”

A Pervasive Problem

A study conducted in 2015 by the Chancellor’s Status of Women Committee and the Status of Women Committee in the College of Arts and Science at MU found that with regard to gender equity on campus, there was no evidence of a systematic pay bias against female faculty. However, it did find that the average salary for female faculty is almost $16,000 (or 15 percent) below the average salary for male faculty and that the colleges with the highest average salaries were predominantly male.

Cornelison, Mitchum and Rosenfeld all believe that female scientists at MU face at least three significant hurdles on their path to full professor: the amount of time it takes compared to their male colleagues, the lack of mentorship, and the high ratio of male full professors compared to female full professors in several departments.

Mitchum stated that there are only two other female full professors — Jeanne Mihail and Michelle Warmund — in the plant sciences department compared to at least 17 males. Rosenfeld and Cornelison had similar ratios in their respective departments.

Recent controversies indicate gender equity is a persistent challenge in the field as a whole.

In 2015, a study published by the American Psychological Association found that when considering requests from prospective students seeking mentoring in the future, the science faculty at research-intensive universities were more likely to hire a male lab manager, mentor him, pay him more and rate him as more competent than a female candidate with the exact same resume. And this year, two senior female scientists sued the prestigious Salk Institute for Biological Studies, alleging pervasive gender discrimination and systematic sexism.

Although female scientists remain underrepresented in many countries, academic journal publisher Elsevier released a report in 2017 that shows improvement. It stated that women’s scholarly authorship increased overall from 30 percent in the late 1990s to 40 percent two decades later. In terms of raw proportions, the percentage of women scientists in the U.S. increased from 31 percent from 1996-2000 to 40 percent from 2011-2015.

Beginning Inspiration

Rosenfeld, Cornelison and Mitchum’s success in the departments of Biomedical Sciences, Biological Sciences and Plant Sciences, respectively, follow several decades of hard work and passion in their fields.

But their interest in science started in unique ways.

“In middle and high school I was always excited about science classes,” said Mitchum. “I liked physics. I liked chemistry. I was lucky to have a science teacher, Patty Gustin, who knew I had an interest in science, saw some potential and encouraged me. She was actually the first person to encourage me to go on to college in science.”

Mitchum went on to get an undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. She immediately continued her education and received her masters in plant pathology at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and her Ph.D. in plant pathology and biotechnology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Cheryl Rosenfeld’s high school biology teacher, Patricia Murphy, was also the first person to put her on the science track.

“I can still picture her to this day,” Rosenfeld said, smiling. “She gave me a C on my first lab assignment. My friend received a better grade and we did the same work, so I asked her why I got such a low grade. She told me that I was going to be a scientist, that she expected more of me, and to improve my grade she allowed me to help prep the lab experiments.”

Rosenfeld went on to receive a bachelor of science and DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Ph.D. in Animal Sciences and Reproductive Biology from MU.

Cornelison’s path was a bit different. Like many undergraduate scientists, she initially thought she would go to medical school. But during an independent study, she was assigned to a lab doing behavior genetics in mice and fell in love with research.

“Unlike my experience in Chemistry classes, I was now in an environment where I was expected to go and do things nobody had ever done before,” Cornelison said. “And I got to tell people about it. And I got to decide what the next unknown thing I wanted to know was. After that, I had to decide whether to apply to medical school or graduate school because I only had enough money to take the GRE or the MCAT, so I took the GRE. And I am still incredibly grateful for the people who took me into their lab and taught me to science.

Cornelison credits that experience with why she enjoys having undergraduates in her lab. To date, over 20 of them have graduated with departmental honors based on their independent research projects.

“If I can give students a taste of what that experience of discovery feels like, I’m happy. It changes your perspective on many things,” she said.

The concept of mentorship is something Rosenfeld, Cornelison and Mitchum all agree is critical for budding scientists, male or female.

Each shared stories about the vast amount of mentors that inspired them and students they still keep in contact with. Mitchum has an especially meaningful relationship with one of her mentors.

“While I was working in a lab as an undergraduate I had the opportunity to interact with a visiting scientist who would work in our lab, Donald Foard, an older gentleman at the time, and he became my mentor,” Mitchum said fondly. “I don’t think I would be where I am today without his mentorship. As an undergraduate, he encouraged me. He believed in me. He inspired me to go to graduate school. And we still keep in contact today. He is 86 years old now and we still write letters back and forth. I recently had the privilege of sending him my promotion letter. The sheer excitement of sharing that promotion with him was incredibly meaningful.”

“Without him believing in me I don’t think I would be sitting here talking to you about this promotion today,” she added. “He believed in me during a time when I didn’t believe in myself.”

Supporting Women in STEM

In an effort to promote mentorship and address female-specific concerns in the STEM fields, such as wage negotiation and salary differences, MU recently started its first Women in STEM group. The group was spearheaded by Rosenfeld and Azizan-Gardner, and had its first meeting in July.

“The issue of mentoring is something that you see everywhere, not just here,” said Azizan-Gardner. “It is a pervasive problem we need to address. And we can do that here at MU and do something that will really benefit everyone.”

Female mentorship is something that Rosenfeld believes is critical for female scientists and she makes an effort to mentor female undergraduate and graduate students.

“When you’re struggling, you often think that there is no way you can do this,” said Rosenfeld. “But if you see someone that looks like you that has succeeded and is teaching you, all the sudden your goal does not seem impossible.”

Mitchum is another strong proponent of mentorship and undergraduate research. She has mentored 26 undergraduate researchers in her lab, and 12 of them went on to graduate school, while many of the rest went to medical school.

“It’s so important for us as mentors, female or male, to believe in and encourage the younger generation,” she said. “I believe in many cases, you just need someone to believe in you and know you can accomplish things. It’s important to have quality in mentorship — investing in students and giving students your time and direct attention.”

Rosenfeld hopes that the Women in STEM group will empower female scientists to be more assertive. She said the first meeting was “eye opening” because many of the participants had similar experiences and it was powerful to hear their frustrations. About 20 women attended the first meeting, and Rosenfeld is confident that number will increase.

Azizan-Gardner believes that Bond LSC has the potential to be a leader in promoting, recruiting and retaining female scientists. And as a result, will encourage more women to go into STEM fields.

“I hope having a strong Women in STEM group will be great recruitment as well for other general faculty to come to MU,” said Azizan-Gardner. “At least that’s my goal, and that’s the area I’m responsible for. And on top of that, I think it will really entice other undergraduate women to go into STEM.”

Emilia Asante #IAmScience

Emilia Asante #IAmScience
#IAmScience because looking into the unknown and coming up with a plan to take a stab at answering it is so fascinating.”

No one in Emilia Asante’s family works in a science field or attended graduate school.

“As an immigrant from Ghana, my family was unaware of the American educational system,” she said. “So many of my academic journeys were unknown and I had to navigate it by myself. I was always interested in science and with the help of programs such as the Lang Youth Medical program when I was in grades six through 12 and the McNair Program at Earlham College, I was put on the right path. These programs provided the help I need and allowed me to explore science in a way I never knew existed.”

Asante graduated in 2014 from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana with a degree in biology. She is currently pursuing a Ph. D in biological sciences at MU, and works in Anand Chandrasekhar’s lab at Bond LSC.

“I love being able to walk down the hall and talk to other labs about my project and the getting feedback in real time,” she said. “I love the community that I have built since being here.”

For her dissertation topic, Asante is using the zebrafish model to understand the consequences of abnormal neuronal migration of the facial branchiomotor (FBM) neurons on circuit formation and behavioral function. Her research aims to explore the relationship between behavior and circuit organization due to neuronal migration abnormalities of the FBM neurons.

“Essentially, I’m trying to figure out what happens when the proper connections are not made,” she said. “For example, autism is a neurological disease. How does the defect in the brain connections lead to the complex behaviors such communication and social impairments? I want to understand how the brain rewire itself when there is a misconnection.”

Asante has always been interested in behavioral science and how things work. After graduation, she hopes to take the training from her research and lab experience at Bond LSC to a translational research position. Translational research means she would help people in a more direct way, compared to research that is more removed or abstract. Labs that deal with translational research might discover how certain genes cause diseases or work with translating ALS models to drug therapy.

“The possibility that I might discover something that will add to the knowledge in my field – no matter how small the contribution – that’s very exciting,” Asante said.

Summer ripens undergrad research interest

Natalie Hickerson

Natalie Hickerson stands next to her research poster at MU’s Undergraduate Research Forum. Hickerson, a biochemistry major, spent her summer in Dr. Hannink’s lab.

By: Samantha Kummerer| Bond LSC

It takes a lot of time and patience to be a scientist. This is something that first-time researcher Natalie Hickerson quickly discovered.

“A lot of the time things are so small. I mean you’re using such tiny volumes of DNA that you can’t see anything happening,” said the undergraduate biochemistry major.

For some, this uncertainty pair with long lab hours and multiple trial and errors would be frustrating. Hickerson, however, put in the time and asked the questions, which led her to discover the rewards of research.

“You try something a few times and it wouldn’t work and then you change one thing and suddenly it works and you get results and it was just very exciting, like ‘wow what I’m doing is real,’” she said.

Hickerson attends the University of Miami but worked as a research intern in Mark Hannink’s lab in the Bond Life Sciences Center this summer. She said she chose the University of Missouri because the program was well rounded and fit with her major.

Hannink said while Hickerson entered the lab not understanding everything, she wasn’t afraid to ask questions and that helped her catch on fast.

“What makes a scientist different is that you are an active generator of new knowledge. Instead of being a passive consumer of existing knowledge you have to become an active producer of new knowledge,” Hannink said.

The Missouri native spent two months creating new knowledge on PGAM5, an important protein involved in many mitochondrial processes and cell death.

Hickerson began by intensely studying the protein at its most basic level to determine how and why it works the way it does. Part of this process was comparing different mutations of the protein.

Previous research shows how understanding the sensitivity of PGAM5 and its changes in the cell could help in nerve-degenerate diseases like Parkinson’s and ALS. Individuals suffering from those diseases experience a loss of function or mutation in some proteins.

Part of Hickerson’s initial research aimed at figuring out what signal activates PGAM5 in a cell. A better knowledge of that process will help scientists understand how pathways function and turn off during nerve-degenerative disease.

Hannink explained if a pathway is defective, activating a different pathway may function as a type of therapy.

After months of long hours, Hickerson discovered by changing the pH levels, PGAM5 can be switched from inactive to active.

“We had suspected it to be the case but the data she provided really helped demonstrate that was true,” Hannink said.

While Hickerson is headed back to Florida to continue her pursuit of biochemistry, her findings will continue to be advanced this fall in Hannink’s lab.

“There’s a lot more to be discovered with what we were doing,” Hickerson said. “A lot of the stuff we were doing this summer was new ideas and just developing deeper knowledge on things they’ve discovered in the lab previously. So, I was looking deeper into what they already started and we did find some new things so it was neat.”

She said her experience this summer inspired her to get more involved in undergraduate research.

“It definitely gave me a much better understanding of how to work in a lab and just basic lab techniques. The overall research project gave me a lot of good foundation for that,” she said.

As Hickerson continues to learn about research, Hannink said it’s an ongoing process that he is still a part of.

“I’m doing the same thing all the time that they are learning to do,” he said. “There’s this dynamic and that active learning process also challenges me to becomes a better scientist as well.”

Johanna Morrow #IAmScience

IAMSCIENCE final template_Johanna.jpg

Johanna Morrow collects leaf samples from plants in the Bond Life Sciences Center’s growth chamber. Morrow is a Ph.D. student in the Liscum lab. 

By Samantha Kummerer | Bond LSC 

“#IAmScience because learning something new is super exciting! I love that by performing research one can contribute to the collection of knowledge.”

Johanna Morrow discovered her love for plant sciences after working in Mannie Liscum’s lab for more than a decade after college.

“I was a biology undergraduate and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew I enjoyed research so I pursued a job with Dr. Liscum,” she said. “As time went on, I realized I was really interested in how plants are able to sense light and all the different growth and development processes that hinge on that perception.”

Her love for research brought her into the lab, but once she was there she discovered another interest.

“During the time that I worked in the lab, I found that not only did I enjoy doing bench work, but I found that I also enjoyed mentoring students and watching their passion for plant science and research flourish,” she explained.

This realization led Morrow to go back to school so she could share her love of science with more students.

Now her passion is her reality.

Morrow is working on how plants sense and respond to different types of light. She deals with mutations in the model plant Arabidopsis. She hopes by screening different variations of the plant, she can better understand what happens to a plant after it perceives light.

“Maybe we can identify new players in this mechanism or identify new ways that this could have an agronomic impact,” Morrow said.

Drowning in Data

New web-based framework helps scientists analyze and integrate data

By Emily Kummerfeld | Bond LSC

Large-scale data analysis on computers is not exactly what comes to mind when thinking about biological research.

But these days, the potential benefit of work done in the lab or the field depends on them. That’s because often research doesn’t focus on a single biological process, but must be viewed within the context of other processes.

Known as multi-omics, this particular field of study seeks to draw a clearer picture of dynamic biological interactions from gigantic amounts of data. But, how exactly can scientists suitably weave multiple streams of information together, especially considering technology limits and other biological variables?

Trupti Joshi and her team are seeking to find a solution to that problem.

Joshi, as part of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group faculty, works on translational bioinformatics to develop a web-based framework that can analyze large multi-omics data sets, appropriately entitled “Knowledge Base Commons” or KBCommons for short. She describes KBCommons as “a universal, comprehensive web resource for studying everything from genomics data including gene and protein expression, all the way to metabolites and phenotypes.”

Her work began about eight years ago with soybeans. Dubbed the Soybean Knowledge Base (SoyKB), her team had developed a lot of their own data analysis tools for soybean research, but they realized the same tools could help research of other organisms. From there sprouted the Knowledge Base Commons, intended for looking at plants, animals, crops or disease datasets without the need to “reinvent the wheel” each time.

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Soybean plants used in research that utilizes Soy KB web-based network. | Emily Kummerfeld, Bond LSC

“Our main focus has been in enabling translational genomics research and applications from a biological user’s perspective, and so our development has been providing graphic visualization tools,” Joshi said.

Those tools provide an array of colorful graphics from basic bar graphs to assorted colored pie charts to help the researcher better analyze the data once data has been added to the KBCommons.

Colorful graphs and comparisons lets many researchers look past the lines of text and tables full of numbers that represent genes, plant traits or other experimental results, and making the interpretation of data much more easier and efficient.

One particular tool allows the researcher to look at the differential genes of four different comparisons or samples at the same time. Differential genes are the genes in a cell responding differently between different experimental conditions. For example, a blood cell and a skin cell both have the same DNA, however, some genes are not expressed in the blood cell that are expressed in the skin cell. With this KBCommons tool, a researcher can examine genes to see “what are the common ones, what are the unique ones to that, and at the same time look at the list of the genes and their functions directly on the website, without having to really go and pull these from different websites or be working with Excel sheets,” Joshi explained.

She envisions KBCommons as a tool to enable translational research as well. Users will be able to compare crops, such as legumes and maize for food security studies, or link research between veterinary medicine and human clinical studies for better therapies.

Intended for a wide range of users, Joshi is keenly aware of its potential users right here at MU.

One current user of the Soybean Knowledge Base (SoyKB) system is Gary Stacey, whose lab at Bond Life Sciences Center studies soybean genomics and to date has been the longest user of the SoyKB resource. Like many researchers, Stacey explained the need for a program like SoyKB that can process enormous amounts of data.

“The reason it’s called “Knowledge Base” is the idea that we’re putting information in, and what we hope to get out is knowledge. Because information is different than knowledge,” he said, “we don’t just want to collect stamps, we want to be able to actually make some sense out of it…By having a place to store the data, and then more importantly have a place to analyze it and integrate it, it allows us to ask better questions.”

This is essential, given that one soybean genome is 1.15 GB in size, and one thousand soybean genome sequences could generate 30 to 50 TB of raw sequencing data and tens of millions of genomic variations (SNPs).

But such numbers are modest compared to the program’s true capabilities.

“The KBCommons system is so powerful that it can allow you to run thousands of genomes at the same time using our XSEDE gateway allocations,” Joshi said. “This whole scalability is a unique feature of KBCommons, which a lot of databases do not provide, and we are happy we have been able to bring that to our MU Faculty collaborators on these projects, so that they can really utilize the remote high performance computing (HPC), cloud storage and new evolving techniques in the field.”

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KB Commons is a new web-based network for biological data analysis and integration developed by students. | Emily Kummerfeld, Bond LSC

Mass data capability and colorful graphs aside, her favorite part is who exactly is designing the program.

“What I like most about KBCommons is that it serves as a training and development ground and is developed by students, undergraduate and graduate students from computer science and our MUII informatics program.”

KBCommons is still under development, but publication and access for all users is planned for the end of this year or early 2018. Users will not only be able to view public data sets, but add their own private data sets and establish collaborative groups to share data.

Dr. Trupti Joshi is an Assistant Professor and faculty in the Department of Health Management Informatics, the Director for Translational Bioinformatics with the School of Medicine, and Core Faculty of the MU Informatics Institute and Department of Computer Science and the Interdisciplinary Plant Group.