Braden Zink #IAmScience

Braden Zink

Braden Zink, a biology major at MU, stands near his lab station in the Angelovici Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC


By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I have learned to think critically and approach scientific unknowns in a way that will prepare me for a career as a successful physician.”

Labs aren’t born in a day. Neither are researchers.

Braden Zink, a senior biology major, could tell story after story about just that. He came to Mizzou with little knowledge of university research but with the determination to get his feet wet. As a member of Ruthie Angelovici’s lab, he did both.

“I came to college completely unaware of how research worked and the kinds of problems that research scientists work to solve,” Zink said. “I joined Dr. Angelovici’s lab during her first year as an MU professor and was thrilled to have the opportunity to help get it off the ground.”

With the lab’s goal of improving sustainability and nutritional quality of seeds, Zink has been able to make great strides in plant sciences. His current project is focused on how the size of seeds relate to their metabolic profiles.

“I had to come up with a way to measure Arabidopsis seeds because they’re the size of salt grains,” Zink said. “I came up with a protocol and performed size analysis on hundreds of ecotypes. My ultimate goal is to identify a gene or several that explain the observed variation in seed size.”

Last summer, Zink took advantage of working as a full-time researcher at Bond LSC.

“My work this past summer led to the conclusion that there’s a significant negative correlation between seed size and the quantity of several amino acids,” Zink said. “In general, I discovered that bigger seeds have proportionally less amino acids.”

This information led him to a working hypothesis that metabolic adjustments other than amino acids must be responsible for seed size variation.

Zink was able to work all summer solely on his research in Bond LSC thanks to the Cherng Summer Scholars grant funded by the founders of Panda Express, who happen to be Mizzou alumni. As one of 12 recipients — making it the most competitive grant for undergraduates — Zink’s dedication to his craft was recognized in a big way.

“I was able to focus intensely on my research and was immersed in it. Over the summer I didn’t have obligations to course work, so I was really able to be all in,” Zink said. “I believe what I’ve accomplished in research will help to set me apart from other candidates as I apply to medical school this year.”

He took his findings from the summer and presented as part of the Missouri EPSCoR program, which is run by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide more financial resources to scientifically underfunded states.

“I presented the poster as one of around 80 Missouri scholars,” Zink said. “Included in the presenters were students at all levels below professor, so it really highlighted what up-and-coming scientists are doing.”

After the event in late August, Zink was one of 10 presenters chosen to move forward and share their work in front of a national committee of NSF scientists. As the only undergraduate student selected from the state, it was an exciting opportunity.

“It was a closed room presentation with scientists whose work I’ve been reading for a while asking me questions about my science, so it was nerve-wracking,” Zink said. “While intimidating, this was also an incredible opportunity for my work to undergo an acid-test. Having my project hold water while being evaluated by nationally recognized scientists was an experience that confirmed that the work I’m doing is both professional and meaningful.”

While his accomplishments as an undergraduate researcher speak for themselves, Zink’s next step is medical school.

“Ideally, I want to become a cardiologist,” Zink said. “I’ve shadowed Dr. Greg Flaker — a seasoned cardiologist and head of cardiac research at the University of Missouri Hospital — and the work is something I could see myself doing in my professional career. I see this as an opportunity to offer critically ill patients 10 or 15 more years of life. It is a force that drives me towards joining this field.”

Zink plans to incorporate the lessons he’s learned at Bond LSC on his path to becoming a cardiologist.

“I’ll be doing a lot of the same style of critical thinking I do now,” Zink said. “Research has helped me do things that most undergraduates don’t get to. It helps you get ahead of the ball.”

Although there are more discoveries to be made, Zink is happy to contribute what he can to get things moving in the right direction.

“I understand that the contributions I’ve made — and continue to make — will only be a drop in a massive bucket,” Zink said. “However, each drop in this bucket is necessary if it is ever to be filled.”

Carson Broeker #IAmScience


Carson Broeker, a biochemistry junior at MU, works in the Angelovici lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because learning and chasing my innate curiosity about the living world with them makes me excited to work in lab each day.”

Science can be about serendipity that leads to better discoveries and opportunities that researchers don’t expect. Carson Broeker knows this all too well.

“I wasn’t always interested in research,” said Broeker, a junior biochemistry major. “I took the three science classes my high school offered, but didn’t really get into the research side of things until I came to college.”

After speaking with his undergraduate research advisor his freshman year, Broeker began looking into which professors in Bond LSC were doing work he was interested in. From there, he contacted Ruthie Angelovici and was offered a position working in her lab during his sophomore year.

Now in his second year as part of the lab, he uses his biochemistry background to work with amino acids and uncover ways to increase nutritional benefits in seeds by analyzing their genes.

Candidate genes are selected through an observational method known as a genome wide association study (GWAS), where differences in the genetic sequences of a population are compared to their respective phenotypes. In this case, it is the amino acid levels in seeds. From there, Broeker can select a gene for further study via loss of function mutation, where the gene of interest is prevented from being expressed.

Broeker’s work has been on the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, with hope that research performed is transferable to a staple crop species.

“My job is the precursor for engineered plants that will provide more food security,” Broeker said. “I confirm that each gene of interest has lost its function.”

If both alleles of the gene he studies have transfer DNA in them, they have supposedly lost their function. Once Broeker confirms genes that have done so, he can compare the amino acid levels from the mutant seeds to the normal wild type seeds.

“From that data, we can draw conclusions to see if the knockout of my gene of interest influenced certain amino acid levels,” Broeker said.

This information can then be used to engineer plants with sufficient nutrition to sustain a healthy human diet, which can have a great impact on the world’s food supply.

While his work with genes is the main way Broeker has been exposed to research, he is always learning from those he works alongside.

“I get to talk and work with others who either have the same or more knowledge about scientific topics than I do,” Broeker said. “Learning and chasing my innate curiosity about the living world with them makes me excited to work in lab each day.”

Next year as a senior, Broeker will join Chiswili Yves Chabu’s lab in Tucker Hall. Its focus is on developmental cell-to-cell communication and tumor progression and will allow Broeker to expand his knowledge in different areas of science, all while continuing to work in the Angelovici lab in Bond LSC.

“I’m excited to get more exposure to different types of research,” Broeker said. “Interdisciplinary aspects of research are strong right now, so joining the Chabu lab is a great way to be a part of that.”

While the added work will prove challenging, Broeker is excited about what his work in both labs will contribute to his graduate school applications, which he began working on this year.

“I’ve been studying for the GRE to prepare for applications,” Broeker said. “I worked in Angelovici’s lab last summer, but am in the process of applying for Research Experiences for Undergraduates programs for next summer.”

These programs, often referred to simply as REUs, allow students to better prepare for a graduate school path. They include workshops and seminars about various components of research, as well as GRE preparation classes.

“Under the guidance of mentors, I believe that pursuing an REU would be the best for me and my future in applying for graduate school,” Broeker said.

And while he’s excited about the opportunity to better understand research and continuing to find answers to the questions he has, Broeker is largely looking forward to life after earning his degrees.

“Trying to teach others about science is very important to me,” Broeker said. “I don’t want to go to graduate school just for more classes, I want expand our collective knowledge. Teaching people is just as important as doing the research. If you can’t teach, you won’t see any results from it.”

From undergrads to scientists

Soybean cyst nematode plant screening

Soybeans are used to screen for genes connected to traits that resist soybean cyst nematode. Recent progress by the the Mitchum lab explores how the plants combat the parasite and how the parasite sidestep genetic protections.

Samantha Kummerer | Bond Life Sciences Center

It might not sound like a traditional undergraduate experience, but Elizabeth Prenger and Andrew Ludwig found success studying a tiny parasitic worm.

It’s called the soybean cyst nematode (SCN) and it sucks more than a billion dollars a year from American soybean farmers. While farmers have used resistant soybeans and crop rotation to fight against the pest, the nematodes continue to gain ground against increasingly less effective methods to control them.

Working in the lab of Melissa Mitchum, a Professor of Plant Sciences at MU’s Bond Life Science Center, they helped understand how soybeans naturally resist this worm and how SCN evades these protections.

That work recently paid off as they saw their names published in the journal Plant Physiology in November 2017. The study explored the genetic mechanisms behind resistance in order to develop better prevention.

Elizabeth Prenger

Elizabeth Prenger studied soybean resistance to soybean cyst nematode in the Bond LSC lab of Melissa Mitchum, leading to a recent publication in the journal Plant Physiology.

“If scientists can understand how resistance genes work and interact then that information can be applied in breeding and developing soybeans,” said former Mitchum lab member Elizabeth Prenger.

While the findings were published in 2017, for Prenger and Andrew Ludwig the research began several years ago.

Prenger came to college knowing she wanted to improve crops and help farmers like her family, she just wasn’t sure exactly how. She joined Mitchum’s lab as a freshman to begin to find out.

As a freshman and sophomore, Prenger worked to purify, sequence and analyze DNA of various soybeans to help further characterize the SHMT gene, a gene that plays a role in a plant’s ability to resist the pest. She also worked in the greenhouse to identify soybeans with mutations in this gene by infecting them with SCN.

Her fellowship supported by the MU Monsanto Undergraduate Research Program sparked her interest in plant genetics but she also realized she wanted more interaction with plants beyond the lab.

Without this early immersion into the lab, Prenger said it would have taken her longer to find her interests.

Now, as a graduate student, she studies soybean genetics at the University of Georgia.

Andrew Ludwig

Andrew Ludwig presents some of his research on nematode resistance at Missouri Life Sciences Week 2017 | Photo by Jinghong Chen, Bond LSC

Ludwig’s position in the lab helped him find his direction in science as well.

He applied for a position while still in high school through the MU Honors College Discovery Fellows Program. The fellowship funds and places undergraduates in labs across campus. His interest in the genetic modification of crops led him to the Mitchum lab.

For three years, Ludwig helped infect different mutants with the nematode and then compare the effect on resistance. This screening helped narrow down the genetic possibilities controlling soybean resistance to a single gene.

“We were hoping the soybeans would have a mutation in one of the resistance genes and then that mutation would cause the gene to cease function so you would see a lot of nematodes on a plant that shouldn’t have any,” he explained.

This experience taught Ludwig how to think like a scientist by developing problem-solving skills.

“I think working in the lab was an immensely valuable experience because I learned so much about what it is to be a scientist and it opened my eyes to a lot more of what the field of plant science really is,” he said.

It also taught him that a traditional lab work environment was not for him. As Ludwig begins to apply for graduate school he is planning to major in horticulture.

His goals changed from wanting to create GMO crops for other countries to now hoping to solve food insecurity closer to home by working with sustainable agriculture and food deserts.

Since joining Mitchum’s lab as undergraduates, both Prenger and Ludwig learned what it means to be scientists and shaped where they are today. The publication of the research that started the path to where they are today was a satisfying conclusion.

“It’s really rewarding to see that all the work exists outside of my lab notebook now,” Ludwig said.

Reflecting on their experience, both students urged other undergraduates to get in a lab as soon as they can to begin discovering themselves and science.

“Go for it. It’s a really helpful experience, it will make you better at what you do even if what you end up doing is different from what you thought you’d do,” Ludwig recommended.

Suman Gurung #IAmScience


Suman Gurung, a Developmental Neurology Ph.D candidate, stands in front of the zebra fish he studies. Gurung works in the Chandrasekhar lab at Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

#IAmScience “because it allows me to get involved in our quest to understand how the brain develops.”

The smallest discoveries often yield the greatest rewards when it comes to science. Suman Gurung, a Ph.D. candidate in the Division of Biological Sciences, is well aware of that.

Gurung works to uncover those small discoveries through the movement of neurons in the brain as a member of Anand Chandrasekhar’s lab in Bond LSC.

“We study how neurons migrate in the brains of zebrafish,” Gurung said. “We look at how they go from where they’re born to where they finally end up and make different connections.”

Those connections play a big part in how the brain works and can tell scientists like Gurung a lot about its inner workings. The paths the neurons follow, though, aren’t absolute.

“We investigate the cell behaviors of facial branchiomotor neurons in the zebrafish hindbrain to understand how migrating neurons respond to the environment,” Gurung said. “We also investigate the interaction between facial branchimotor neurons and the neighbouring cells as they migrate to their final destination where they carry out their function.”

It might sound complicated, but those nerves primarily control muscle movement in the jaw of the fish.

Knowing why these neurons take the paths they do could reveal significant information about the inner workings of the brain.

“We’re interested in how neurons in the vertebrate brain know when to start, which direction to take, and when to stop migration” Gurung said. “We’re interested in these questions because many human brain disorders are the result of failed neuron migration, which often result in poor motor function, seizures and impaired cognitive development.”

This work centers in a single room in the basement of Bond LSC where rows of fish tanks contain thousands of zebrafish.

“Zebrafish are transparent, and also easier and cheaper to maintain [than other lab animal models],” Gurung said. “They produce a lot of offspring and their development happens outside the mother’s body, meaning we can physically see the live growth and migration of neurons.”

The fish also develop rather quickly, requiring only about 20 hours for their branchiomotor neurons to complete migration. These neurons start migrating around 18 hours after fertilization and complete their migration by 48 hours after fertilization, meaning Gurung and his lab must work quickly.

“We monitor the fish all the time,” Gurung said. “The lab members take turns caring for the fish, everything from feeding to cleaning tanks and checking water quality.”

That makes the research an around the clock activity. However, Gurung doesn’t mind the extra effort because of how connected he is to the work.

“When you work with the same fish, they become your babies,” Gurung said. “Everything is dependent upon the health of those fish, so keeping them healthy is essential.”

Having grown up in Nepal, Gurung came to the United States right after graduating from high school. Before ending up at Mizzou, Gurung attended the University of Nevada-Reno and earned a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in biotechnology.

After completing his Ph.D., Gurung wants to stick with research.

“My long-term goal is to establish a career on a research-intensive path,” Gurung said. “Since I enjoyed teaching and mentoring undergraduates and junior colleagues during my graduate studies, I would like to hold a position with ample opportunity for mentoring and teaching.”

Ultimately, he’s excited about the future and the opportunities working at Bond LSC has granted him.

“I am fascinated by this opportunity that I have,” Gurung said. “To work in a lab, do research and tackle things the way we do is incredible. Growing up, I never thought I’d be able to do all of this.”

Embracing similarities


Alexander Franz presents his research on arboviruses and mosquitoes to the Host/Pathogens Research Network. The network brings researchers from across campus together to foster cross-discipline research. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

Bond LSC connects scientists in “hot topic” research
By Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

An immunologist, a plant biologist and a biochemist enter a room.

No, that’s not the start of a geeky science joke, but rather is the start of a conversation meant to spur ideas.

As a group of scientists crowd a conference room in the Bond Life Sciences Center in December, they aim to share ideas about their diverse research projects and disciplines.

Today they set about to learn about viruses in mosquitoes from Alexander Franz of MU’s Department of Veterinary Pathobiology.

“The take-home message is that mosquitoes are not just flying syringes or something,” said Franz, explaining the basic science behind his studies. “That is the very wrong idea. This is a very intricate relationship between the virus and the mosquito.”

He spoke to the scientists in attendance about the Chikungunya virus that is spread by mosquitoes to humans throughout the world and currently has no vaccine. Franz’ work examines the genome of the virus and the virus’ expansion into secondary tissues.

The scientists are part of a research network focused on Host-Pathogen relationships. This overarching topic unifies researchers from across campus who share this commonality. The hope is to spark shared projects between scientists that often find it difficult to make connections outside of their discipline.

This group is one of three hot topic areas Bond LSC is currently targeting to get the conversation started. Researchers across campus joined this network two months ago along with groups interested in metabolomics and cancer biology.

During each meeting, one researcher volunteers to present their work to the group and other members are able to jump in, ask questions or offer advice to bounce ideas off one another.

Bond LSC interim director Walter Gassmann kick started the meetings, recognizing both the need for collaborative research and the central location of the Bond LSC building.

“The increasing complexity and sophistication of basic research leads to increased specialization. Yet, fundamental questions can only be tackled by getting at them from different directions,” Gassmann said.

The LSC has always encouraged collaborative discussions for scientists within the center, but Gassmann decided to expand these to include faculty from all buildings on campus as well as include students in the conversation.

“When I became the interim director, I felt Bond LSC could really function as a catalyst for a wider research community on campus. This meant advertising the “hot topics” meetings across campus,” Gassmann said.

Bond LSC investigator Michael Petris said previously multiple small cancer research groups met, but these meetings expand the group and centralize everyone.

Petris is one of the leaders of the cancer biology group and said the effect of these talks is already showing.

After Petris gave the first talk for the cancer biology group, he was invited to exchange techniques, ideas and cell lines with another researcher who was in attendance.

“The discussions that go on in these sort of groups are, for me at least, opening my eyes to the broader spectrum of cancer biology that goes beyond my wheelhouse, my sort of understanding from a narrow perspective,” Petris said.

One way this is occurring is due to the inclusion of clinicians who deal with patients regularly. Petris explained their perspective on problems in cancer and biology may be something the cancer biologist never even thought of before.

The center supports these talks with the aim of sparking collaborative research, publications, and grants in the future.

A full schedule of spring 2018 hot topic meetings will be released in January.


Madison Ortega #IAmScience


Madison Ortega, a junior biology major, works in the Rosenfeld lab at Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because research gives me an avenue to explore my curiosity and possibly discover something groundbreaking.”

Research is all about discovering the answers to the unknown, pushing boundaries and exploring the depths of the field. As a junior biology major, Madison Ortega is already getting a taste of that.

Her freshman year, Ortega got a brochure for the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity program (IMSD). This program encourages students to get involved with science even if they have had little exposure to it previously. Its ultimate goal is to provide a foundation of advanced science skills for minorities that can be applied to higher degrees within the field.

“I got to start exploring research right away through IMSD,” Ortega said. “It gave me the opportunity to look into various labs.”

Ortega landed on working in Cheryl Rosenfeld’s lab at Bond LSC because she felt she would have ample opportunities. That experience has led her to an individual project working on samples of spiny rats — an endangered species from Japan.

“The male doesn’t have a Y chromosome, so we’re trying to figure out how sexual differentiation occurs in the species without it,” Ortega said.

Through Bond LSC, she connected with Hokkaido University in Japan who donated the samples.

“They’re not fresh samples — they’re about 10 years old,” Ortega said. “But I showed interest in the project and ended up getting to work on it one-on-one with our lab mentor.”

In addition to her individual project, Ortega works with other undergraduates within her lab.

“We’re doing a variety of experiments that include social testing on mice,” Ortega said. “We do anxiety testing and also perform Barnes maze with the animals.”

These mazes and tests aim to see the impact of chemicals in the environment that mimic hormones like estrogen and impact animal growth and development.

“Basically, we’re trying to see how endocrine disruptors we feed the mice affect their offspring,” Ortega said. “We want to know how it affects them neurologically. In order to accomplish this, we are collaborating with various other groups in Bond LSC.”

Ultimately, they’re aiming to uncover if Bisphenol S (BPS) has any impact on the mice neurologically. These substances are similar to Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used as a hardener in production of plastics and in other manufacturing. As concern has raised over BPA, companies have replaced the chemical with BPS and others to allay public anxiety over its impact. But not much research has been done on BPS and its effect on animals.

“They may be found to have some neurological effects, so research is trying to uncover what exactly those are,” Ortega said. “The many tests we run will help us understand to the extent these chemicals are affecting us.”

After graduation, Ortega envisions herself continuing with research as a focal point of her career.

“I love research,” Ortega said. “My end goal is medical school, but I’m considering a program that combines a master’s degree with a Ph.D. in either dermatology or pediatrics.”

Regardless of her path, the lab work she does now leaves her prepared for the future.

“I spend a lot of time in the lab with my team and individually,” Ortega said. “It’s fun to have ownership of a project, and it’s also fun to work with other undergraduates and have camaraderie. I’m really fortunate.”

The business of proteins


Proteomics Center associate director Brian Mooney holds up a sample before using a machine to collect data on its proteins. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

By: Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

The Proteomics Center runs on proteins.

This research core facility is like a small business and is situated in the Bond Life Sciences Center. It has helped improve agriculture, opened doors for new medical applications and lead to greater insight into human diseases.

Proteins are some of the most plentiful and common building blocks of all living organisms, making structures in cells but also are key to antibody defense, enzymes to carry out chemical reactions and as messengers to coordinate biological processes.

This complexity makes an essential building block far from simple.

Figuring out what proteins exist and how they function is key to many experiments and that’s where Mizzou’s Charles W. Gehrke Proteomics Center comes in.

The Center looks at thousands of proteins with their current technology consisting of six mass spectrometers worth more than $2 million. They serve clients across the UM System and as far away as Mexico and Canada.

At its core is Brian Mooney, associate director of the center and Roy Lowery, an expert in protein isolation and fractionation and is also learning mass spectrometry.

The Center is often juggling multiple clients each week and sometimes each day. For each new project Mooney sits down with researchers, helps them develop an experimental design, and takes their samples to generate data.

“Sometimes you get to that Eureka moment and you say, ‘I thought this was happening but my hypothesis was wrong and actually this is happening’ and leads to new directions in research. That’s what we’re here to do,” Mooney said.

The center is able to run experiments that look at proteins from a global scale and experiments that target just a small number.

For studies that want to find the difference between a normal cell and a mutant, a global analysis is used to look at all the proteins.

Mooney breaks a cell down and removes everything but its proteins. This fractionation allows researchers to examine a lot more proteins more closely.

“Typically the things that are doing the control in the cell are maybe not as abundant, so you need to dig deeper, so that’s the point of the fractionation,” Mooney explained.

To look even deeper into these, the center can use a technique called SDS-Page to sort the proteins by size.

“We’ve done everything from full plants so leaves and roots, we’ve done it for bacteria cells, we’ve done it for blood, both in humans and in animal models and then we have also done some specific tissues whether it be heart or kidney,” Mooney said explaining the range of this technique.

Recently, the center helped with a project aimed at making better corn hybrids for farmers by finding out which proteins played a role in a process called heterosis.


Brian Mooney looks on to data collected on proteins in the MU Proteomics Center.| By Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

“We were able to see specific proteins that were involved in processes that suggest this is why you get a taller and healthier hybrid plant,” Mooney said. “One of the major findings was elevated stress-responsive proteins conferring an ability to withstand stress.”

The center also helped researchers at the Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital compare heart tissue between healthy and diseased hearts.

With a targeted approach, the clients already know what proteins they are interested in, so Mooney is able to use equipment to zero in on a much smaller number.

“We are working in a group in biological sciences that are looking at nerve tissue and in this case they are just interested in five proteins and what we’re able to do is ignore everything else and get really good numbers in how much of these five proteins are there,” Mooney explained.

The center is also there to educate. Mooney explained often clients don’t have a clear understanding of proteomics.

This mission of education also occurs for students. Graduate students and post-doctoral students are trained on how to work the instruments and to analyze the results. On the undergraduate level, Mooney presents hands-on lectures and labs to biochemistry classes. The Center also participates in a unique MU-Industry undergraduate internship program (Biochemistry Dept. and EAG, Columbia).

Sometimes the exposure of what the center’s capabilities sparks cross-discipline projects.

In 2015, Mooney worked on a collaborative project with the MU Medical School studying cataract formation in humans.

Last year, Mooney teamed up with biochemists and mechanical and aerospace engineers.

Mooney explained that before the involvement of the Proteomics Center, the researchers were firing a laser at a piece of a protein called a peptide.

“They saw that something weird happened and wanted to know what that weirdness was on the molecular level, so they came here,” Mooney said.

This collaboration led to a publication on how targeting proteins and peptides with a laser can control biological processes in cells and tissues.

MU is not the only university with a Proteomics Center, but having it local comes with a number of advantages. Mooney said subsidies from MU allow the center to offer reduced rates to MU clients. Another advantage is the ability to consistently have someone nearby to talk through their experiment with.

Since 2002, the center has grown from a handful of customers to more than 50 customers a year and a total budget of about $250,000. Direct income from research usually covers about 60-70% of that total, with the remainder being covered by the Office of Research.

Mooney said part of this success and growth is due to an increase interest in proteomics from scientists.

While genes allow researchers to know what might be in the cell and mRNA tells them what is going to be in the cell, the proteins reveal what is currently in the cell.

Many researchers have focused on cells at the DNA and mRNA level, but are now discovering it’s important to consider the protein as well.

Soon a new instrument will be added with funds received through a National Science Foundation MRI grant, one of two awarded to MU in the last 10 years. With the upgraded mass spectrometer, Mooney said, data will be able to be collected faster and better. This advancement will continue to allow the center to do what it does best – proteins.

The MU Proteomics Center is named for Charles W. Gehrke, a former MU professor of Biochemistry. It is one of 10 research core facilities subsidized by MU’s Office of Research to provide services to a range of scientists and researchers across the UM System and the world.

Janlo Robil #IAmScience


Janlo Robil, a Ph.D. candidate in Plant Developmental Genetics, admires one of his plants. Robil works in the McSteen lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because adding a small puzzle piece to the bigger picture is my source of joy.”

Janlo Robil found himself with a difficult decision when he entered a master’s program at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines.

His passion for insects made him want to pursue entomology, but the lack of coursework in the area made him consider other options. Not wanting to put off his studies for another year, Robil took a course called Plant Microtechnique. After that, he was hooked, a weird place to be for someone with no prior interest in plants.

“I found myself amazed by the diversity and intricacy of plant cells and tissues,” Robil said. “And studying these structures in the laboratory was even more interesting.”

From there, his passion only grew. It led him to apply for and be accepted as a Fulbright Scholar — a prestigious exchange program that allows recent graduates to pursue further education in over 140 countries. He chose to attend Mizzou over Iowa and North Carolina because of its strength in plant sciences.

Now, a year and half into a five-year Ph.D. program in plant developmental genetics, Robil works in Paula McSteen’s lab at Bond LSC.

“I was drawn to her research because it encompasses the areas of biology that I am truly fascinated by: plant morpho-anatomy, developmental biology and genetics,” Robil said. “For me, working in the McSteen lab is a unique opportunity to explore fundamental biological questions using an excellent model system, maize.”

Robil studies corn as a key component of his dissertation.

“The overarching theme of my dissertation is the role of plant hormone auxin in vein development and patterning in maize leaf,” Robil said. “I am interested on how the dynamics of auxin shape the formation and density of veins during different steps of leaf development.”

He chose this topic because of how influential it is to a variety of areas of science.

“This research is important to both fields of developmental biology and physiology because optimized density and spacing of leaf veins in C4 crops like maize is a key requirement for their efficient metabolism and productivity even in arid conditions.”

Robil is also able to better his home country while studying at Mizzou.

“Because Philippines is a developing country, conducting basic research is a luxury and we try to focus most of our resources to applied research.” Robil said. “The United States houses the opportunity to explore the basic side of research, which provides the foundation for applied research in the future.”

At Bond LSC, Robil has been able to take his research to the next level.

“I value the collaborative and interdisciplinary atmosphere here,” Robil said. “You can find experts from a variety of disciplines that you can consult or work with to find answers to your research problems.”

Those insights have helped Robil grow as a researcher and work toward his dream of helping alleviate world hunger. While that’s no small task, he tries to take it one day at a time.

“Never lose the wonder of discovery,” Robil said. “It may not always be that novel or significant, but discovering new things should be considered a personal success.”

Bond Life Science Investigator honored with two distinctions


Chris Pires in his greenhouse in the Bond Life Sciences Center.

By: Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

“If you told me when I was an undergrad at Berkley or when I was working at a consulting firm in San Francisco when I was 22 that I would be a professor in Missouri working on broccoli, I would have laughed my ass off,” Bond Life Sciences investigator Chris Pires admitted.

But that work on broccoli has taken him far.

Pires recently received the 2017 Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Faculty Research and Creative Activity in Biological Sciences.

Pires was also elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The honor places Pires alongside other AAAS fellows including Thomas Edison and Margaret Mead as well as some of the most productive faculty members at MU.

The awards add to a long list of honors received over the years ranging from Thomas Reuters’ Highly Cited Researcher to MU Outstanding Research Mentor.

Despite being no stranger to awards, his impact still surprises him.

“For me what’s nice is people who I’ve had some impact on in the past say things,” he said smiling.

Both recent distinctions cite his contributions to plant evolution and sequencing of genomes and their impact towards improving crops and understanding biodiversity.


Chris Pires, a Bond Life Sciences Center researcher, accepts an award from MU Chancellor Alexander Cartwright. Pires won the 2017 Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Faculty Research and Creative Activity in Biological Sciences. | Photo by Kate Anderson.

While his work on polyploidy and hybridization on plants is internationally renowned and even earned a shout out on the television show “The Big Bang Theory”, the findings go right over the average person’s head.

So, instead, he compares his research to dogs.

Golden Retrievers and Chihuahuas don’t look alike but both are dogs. This is the same for broccoli, kale and cabbage — they are all are apart of the same genus of plants, Brassica.

Pires said he started using that analogy after years of getting the conversation wrong.

One of Pire’s passions is communicating the research he does, including clearing up misconceptions surrounding scientists and professors.

Some days he compares his lab and 80-hour workweek to the life of a small business owner running a multi-million dollar business. Other days it’s a football coach.

“I do all those things, you just don’t know it. I train people, I hire people, I fire people, I do communication, I spend a lot of times applying for grants, I give talks,” he said comparing duties of a coach to his everyday life.

He is also a talent scout.

Pires travels the world and visits MU undergraduate research fairs searching for students passionate about making a difference and are able to answer a simple question: Why?

“They just have to have an answer,” he said. “What I don’t want is the students where it’s just the next step in life.”

The passionate and devoted teams he builds pays off.

He has put out more than 140 publications during his career, 11 in 2017.

His success he attributes back to team science.

“I’m being recognized for stuff my lab does and all the people I collaborate with, so I’m happy to be acknowledged for the achievements of our group,” Pires said.

As the researcher looks on to his future at the university he said he hopes to transition from mentoring undergraduates to mentoring faculty and post-doctoral students.

Pires also wants to be a part of helping to foster cross-discipline research teams both inside Bond LSC and across campus.

While it’s not where he expected to he’d be, it’s where he found his passion. Now he is committed to helping his students get their dream job even if it changes along the way.

“A good day is when I go into the lab and I feel like I’m impacting the six or seven people in my lab but when you realize your impact has maybe been bigger than you realize, that’s nice because you just don’t know,” Pires said.

Chris Pires is a Bond Life Sciences’ Investigator and Biological Sciences professor at the University of Missouri. He is also a member of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group and MU Informatics Institute. He received his bachelors in biology at the University of California, Berkeley and his Ph. D. in Botany from the University of Wisconsin.

Madeline McFarland #IAmScience


Madeline McFarland, a senior biochemistry major, works in the Burke Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

Science isn’t limited to the lab. It’s more of a mindset than a discipline, and Madeline McFarland knows this all too well.

As a senior biochemistry major working in Donald Burke’s lab in Bond LSC, McFarland experiments with ribonucleic acid (RNA) to study the origin of life before DNA and protein served as genetic material and catalyst, respectively.

“I’m interested in the RNA World Hypothesis and how RNA may have played a role in getting life started on our planet,” McFarland said.

This hypothesis suggests early forms of life on Earth may have relied solely on RNA to store genetic information and to catalalyze, or spur, chemical reactions. The theory goes that DNA eventually evolved to take its place due to the instability and ineffectiveness of RNA.

In the lab, McFarland focuses on using a program called systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment (SELEX), which filters the RNA so she can find which strands do what she’s looking for. Specifically, she’s trying to determine if the RNA can make a reaction happen. If McFarland can find this connection, scientists would see that as support for for the RNA World Hypothesis.

“I’m trying to see which RNAs can perform a catalytic function,” McFarland said. “By doing that, we can kind of start to think about how RNA used to function in early earth.”

Her typical day starts at 9 a.m. when she heads to Bond LSC to get her experiments set up for the day.

“I go to class while they’re incubating,” McFarland said. “My science allows me to set stuff up and have a break while it’s running. I’m usually running experiments four days a week.”

McFarland was inspired by the work being done in Bond LSC and the analytical way of thinking about experiments.

“[Research] is kind of nailed into you as soon as you step on campus,” McFarland said. “That was the motivating factor, but I came to love it for a lot of reasons. It’s really shaped the way I think about things.”

When she’s not wearing her lab coat and investigating the origins of life, McFarland spends her time working in environmental efforts at Mizzou.

“I’m really passionate about sustainability in all of its forms: environmental, economic and social,” McFarland said. “I lead the electronic waste drives around campus, and I’m co-directing sustainability week this year.”

McFarland is also a co-president of the biochemistry club.

“In our meetings, we bring in grad students and faculty to talk about career options, so everyone can ask questions,” McFarland said. “We also do fun events. Last night, we had a biochemistry-themed breakout room. They had to balance chemical equations and transcribe and translate a DNA sequence to spell out a word. We have a lot of fun with it.”

All of her work in the lab in combination with her research at Bond LSC has only strengthened her bid for her next endeavor: medical school.

“I’m passionate about communicating science, and I think medicine would allow me to do that,” McFarland said. “I like the idea of radiology because it allows you to look at an image, or data, then think through things on your own, which is a lot like research.”

If she doesn’t end up at medical school, McFarland would like to continue to pursue education. She could see herself attending graduate school.

“I’m interested in a master’s in public health,” McFarland said. “It would allow me to expand my knowledge of science and how it relates to health beyond the scope of the lab.”

Regardless of if she continues to learn through medical or graduate school, though, McFarland credits research for having an immense impact on her career.

“Research has really shaped the way I think about things,” McFarland said.