Tyler McCubbin #IAmScience


Tyler McCubbin, a Ph.D. candidate, collaborates with the Peck Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I am passionate about solving real world problems with creative solutions.”

A lot of people get signs as a guide for the direction they’re supposed to take in life. Tyler McCubbin’s sign was more literal.

“There was a giant billboard alongside a county road and it said ‘Pray for Rain,’ and it’s probably still there,” McCubbin said. “Seeing that at the height of the drought was inspiring. It made me question why anyone studies anything other than drought responses.”

Now as a second year Ph.D. student collaborating with Scott Peck’s lab in Bond LSC, McCubbin studies drought’s impact on the crown roots of corn, which grow from the stem.

“We’re interested in what’s unique about those and why they can keep growing while everything else stops,” McCubbin said. “I’m able to make crown roots grow in a very dry environment. Then I dissect them into different regions and see which genes are turned on and off in response to drought.”

By using a strategically designed apparatus, McCubbin can control the soil environment the corn grows in and better understand why crown roots continue to grow.

“It took a lot of time to come up with the apparatus,” McCubbin said. “We’ve spent about a year optimizing it so that it’s repeatable and accurate.”

Doing that has streamlined his research and given him the opportunity to find results that can be applied to other aspects of the grant.

While the effort is collaborative between a number of labs, McCubbin is impressed by how centralized it is.

“The project is funded by the National Science Foundation,” McCubbin said. “There are six labs working on this project all at Mizzou, which makes this unique.”

And when he’s not working on the mechanisms that make corn roots able to survive drought, McCubbin spends as much time as possible outdoors.

“I am passionate about wildlife conservation and have participated in wetland ecosystem restoration efforts for most of my adult life,” McCubbin said. “If I’m not in the lab, I’m outside because it’s where I feel most at home.”

Chris Zachary #IAmScience

Chris Zachary.jpg

Chris Zachary, a junior chemistry major, stands near his lab station in the Mendoza Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because the lessons I learn through research will help me to one day become an astronaut.”

Asking kids what they want to be when they grow up usually leads to a variety of answers: doctor, lawyer, president, astronaut. A few years down the line, though, most of those answers change.

Chris Zachary, a junior chemistry major, is the exception. He never outgrew the dream of being an astronaut and is involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with going to space in mind.

“There isn’t a clear path to becoming an astronaut, but I was advised to stay in STEM,” Zachary said.

While his ultimate goal requires some extreme preparation and travel, Zachary keeps himself involved to make that dream a reality. Right now, he works in the Mendoza lab at Bond LSC, which he found through his involvement with Mizzou’s Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD).

“I knew I was interested in science and that I wanted to do something with chemistry,” Zachary said. “During an IMSD meeting, Mendoza came in and talked about what his lab does. I was interested, so I pursued it.”

The opportunity to do something a bit outside of the norm was appealing to Zachary because it helps to diversify his experience as a researcher and a student.

With two years under his belt in the Mendoza lab, Zachary now works to uncover some weighty issues in plant cells.

“Our lab focuses on heavy metal transporters, specifically iron,” Zachary said. “One of the most common forms of malnutrition around the world is anemia, and one of the best ways to fight it is to make more nutritious crops.”

That process is called bio fortification, and it allows plants to be more efficient at absorbing nutrients, which will help to alleviate world hunger.

When he’s not working to feed the world, Zachary’s dreams of blasting off to Mars consume him.

“There’s a lot that goes into being an astronaut, like a height requirement and physical tests, which is pretty daunting,” Zachary said. “In the end, though, it’ll be worth it.”

However, in the meantime he wants to maximize his experiences at Mizzou.

“[When choosing a lab] I didn’t want to close myself off,” Zachary said. “Working here helps me because instead of a narrow field, I chose the broader path. I can say I’m a chemistry major who worked in a plant sciences lab, which is huge.”


Sarah Gebkin #IAmScience


Sarah Gebken, a junior biological engineering major, works in the Pires Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I bring a unique perspective to the world of research.”

They say only an engineer could figure out their way around the engineering building at Mizzou. Now in her junior year, Sarah Gebken boasts the ability to do just that.

Her unique perspective as a biological engineering major translates to her work in Chris Pires’ lab in Bond LSC, too. As both an engineer and a scientist, Gebken is prepared to contribute new ideas when trying to find solutions to complicated issues.

“Engineering classes are geared toward problem-solving, so I’m able to pinpoint where we’re going to have issues,” Gebken said. “It gives me a different view on research.”

The lab focuses on trying to get Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) to work in Brassica oleracea — a species of plants that includes cabbage, cauliflower and kale. Doing so has the potential to transform the farming industry.

“The main goal of our research is to save farmers space and time,” Gebken said.

CRISPR acts like scissors to DNA, which helps Gebken and her lab mates gain valuable understanding of the genes.

“CRISPR codes for a protein that clamps onto the DNA and makes a cut,” Gebken said. “We’re relying on that cut to knock out a gene to see what the gene actually does.”

Although Gebken has been trying to find a solution to the same question since she joined the lab as a freshman, she still finds the research satisfying.

Working with the plasmids is the next piece of the puzzle that the lab is aiming to complete.

“We’re making progress, which is exciting,” Gebken said. “We just ordered our plasmids yesterday.”

Once they figure that out, it’ll allow them to use that understanding to make better plants for the world moving forward.

After she finishes her undergraduate degree next year, Gebken plans to pursue a master’s degree and ultimately earn a Ph.D.

“I want to go on and be an academic professor, which would be a lot of research,” Gebken said. “Even if I went into industry, I’d want to do some kind of research.”

For Gebken, the quizzical nature of science serves as motivation to keep going.

“In a research setting, everything is a question,” Gebken said. “And you don’t have answers to a lot of them.”

Piecing together plant immunity

Scott Peck-4620.jpgScott Peck studies Arabidopsis and how bacteria perceive it before initiating an infection. Roger Meissen/ Bond LSC

By Madelyne Maag | Bond Life Sciences Center

Bacteria and disease show no mercy to any organism they can effectively attack, including plants.

Yet, plants can also develop an immune response against these threats from their complex genetic makeup.

Scott Peck’s research delves into how plants do this and how bacteria evade those defenses.

Over the course of the last decade, the Bond Life Sciences Center investigator and professor of biochemistry has specifically looked into how plants are able to initially perceive and respond to potential bacterial threats through phosphorylated proteins and pathogen-associated molecular patterns.

“The overarching goal really with all of this research is to improve a plant’s resistance to potential pathogens in order to decrease crop loss,” Peck said. “That’s hundreds of millions of dollars lost every year to disease, so then that’s less food available and higher costs in the market.”

Peck recently published new work from his lab that observes how plants receive messages from potential pathogens and how they develop an immune response to these pathogens on a genetic level.

Similar to humans and animals, plants have a sensory immune response to know when a foreign object, such as a potentially infectious pathogen, shows up. One way they do that is by using receptors to detect certain molecules particular to an enemy like bacteria or viruses when they encounter the surface of a plant’s cells.

These pathogen-associated molecular patterns, or PAMPs, are recognized by the plant’s innate immune system and cause the plant to create a chemical defense against them. More specifically, when PAMPS are perceived, cells activate messenger proteins called mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs), which signal the plant of a potential problem. Because too much defense signaling can be harmful, another protein, MAP kinase phosphatases (MKPs), helps the cell determine how much of a defense response the cell should make against the enemy.

To better understand the plant’s processes of recognition and response to a potential pathogen, two separate studies analyzed how MKP1 is regulated and which cellular pathways are regulated by MKP1.

“For one of the first times, these studies using MKP1 gives us a large, specific set of gene markers to define individual pathways that respond after perception of bacteria,” said Peck. “We can now specifically take individual genes and know how they work and where to place them like a Jigsaw puzzle.”

Both of these studies are able to help us better understand how one particular plant protein reacts to a potential threat.

Peck made it clear that proteins and responses are altered during defense responses.

The next step would be to better understand how these processes interact to help the plant defend itself against a variety of pathogens.

“By really understanding how the plant does what it does under the best circumstances, we can try to then, either through traditional breeding or engineering, get plants to grow and reproduce without being as vulnerable to pathogens,” Peck said.

Duolin Wang #IAmScience

Duolin Wang

Duolin Wang, a researcher in the Dong Xu lab in Bond LSC, works in bioinformatics. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I want to explore the beauty of biological sequences through computational methods.”

Bioinformatics is a melting pot in the world of science. As a study of analyzing complex data, it’s not a field for everyone, but its applications are vast.

Duolin Wang, a researcher in the Dong Xu Lab at Bond LSC, isn’t intimidated by the complexities her field presents. She came to America from China to conduct research for Xu’s lab while she simultaneously works on her thesis to earn her Ph.D. from Jilin University in China.

“The reason I came to American is because the education is great,” Wang said. “It provides me a very good opportunity to study and do research.”

Wang and her lab practice deep learning, which is a state-of-the-art approach to machine learning.

“There has been a growing interest in applying deep learning methods to understanding the function of biological sequences directly from sequence,” Wang said. “It allows computational models composed of multiple processing layers to learn representations of data with multiple levels of abstraction.”

Essentially, deep learning is a way to better understand the complex data that the bioinformatics field covers. For instance, it turns terabytes of information on a sequence to help researchers predict how best to improve its effectiveness.

She didn’t just stumble into her research position, though. Her supervisor at her university in China had collaborated with Xu in the past. When Xu traveled overseas, Wang was able to meet him in person.

“I showed my interest in his research, and I asked him if I could come to the United States to continue my research,” Wang said.

The rest is history. In the three years she’s been at Mizzou, Wang has been able to work on a number of projects in her field. That’s largely thanks to Xu’s flexibility with the topics she focuses on.

“I have freedom to choose what I want to study,” Wang said. “As a scientist, I can explore what I’m really interested in. Professor Xu didn’t make any barriers to my research field; I can show him my interests and he can see whether it’s a good topic and if I can explore it.”

Wang has even written a few papers, including one for Monsanto thanks to the help of Juexin Wang who also works in the Xu lab. That experience has helped her to prepare for a future in research writing proposals.

It’s not all about the work, though.

“The most valuable thing I got from this lab is the people,” Wang said. “They’re excellent scientists, and I’ve learned a lot from them.”

Wang is on track to finish her Ph.D. this summer, but she’d like to continue what she’s been doing at Bond LSC.

“I might do a postdoc here after I earn my degree,” Wang said. “I want to continue my research here.”

Bond Life Sciences Center adds Molecular Interactions Core as a new research hub


Tom Quinn, director of the Molecular Interactions Core, and others demonstrate equipment for its Jan. 24 open house. | Photo by Katelyn Brown, Bond LSC

By Katelyn Brown, Bond LSC

For researchers, the shape of molecules gives insight into how cells, viruses and other macromolecular interactions take place.

Getting a clear view of that structure is the hard part, and the new Molecular Interactions Core (MIC) at the Bond Life Sciences Center will now give researchers from many different disciplines one place where state-of-the-art equipment are available for them to use to further science.

Dr. Kamal Singh is excited that goal is being realized.

One of the 10 MU’s core facilities that serve scientists’ needs, the MIC specifically provides training, advising and shared equipment for researchers to take a closer look at molecules.

That’s where Dr. Singh comes in.

He serves as the Assistant Director of the MIC and oversees the day-to-day operations of the facility. Dr. Singh makes sure the machines are operational, communicates with researchers interested in using the facility, trains those who do not yet know how to use the equipment and gives guidance as well as collaborative feedback on things like computer-assisted drug design — his specialty.

The humming of machines is the first thing noticed when walking into the MIC. These instruments allow you to look at 3-dimensional models of the molecules like HIV enzymes or view protein crystals under a microscope before diffracting light through them. It’s a lab where miniscule pieces of life become big and important.

Dr. Mark McIntosh, the vice chancellor of research for all UM system campuses, had the idea to create the MIC.

“It was Dr. McIntosh’s vision to bring everything together; which includes structural biology, molecular interactions, particle size, zeta potential, mass of the nanoparticles, etc. He also wanted to bring peptide synthesis here to have everything at one central location,” Dr. Singh said.

Understanding structure at the molecular level helps scientists figure out how reactions happen, how molecules fit together and serve as signals and how pathogens can invade cells, among other possibilities.

“I’m hoping that we can really facilitate structural and molecular research on campus — structural determination and molecular interactions — and really push boundaries of the current state of the field,” said Dr. Tom Quinn, the Director of the MIC.

Dr. Quinn hopes the state-of-the-art equipment will allow the MIC to be a resource for both research faculty and students to be on the cutting edge in their fields.

Dr. Ritcha Mehra-Chaudhary and Dr. Fabio Gallazzi work within the MIC and provide their expertise. Dr. Mehra-Chaudhary works with X-ray crystallography, dynamic light scattering and custom protein expression, while Dr. Gallazzi is an expert in custom peptide synthesis. Their work can be important for understanding drug design to combat viruses and cancers.

The MIC started with one machine, an X-Ray Diffractometer, in room 442 of the  BLSC. It took six months to collect the different machines from different departments in the campus, but in December the MIC became fully operational. The MIC team celebrated with an open house on Jan. 24, 2018.

“It’s kind of crowded, but it’s good,” Dr. Singh said. “We have invited everyone, mainly researchers, but also undergrads. The entire university is welcome to come see what we have. The idea is the advancement of science in our school.”

The MIC won’t only be beneficial for campus researchers, but also researchers from all over and undergrad students who are eager to learn the details of molecular interactions and learn how to use core facilities.

There are many exciting and new technologies in the MIC that will interest outside researchers, according to Dr. Quinn. One of these is the nanodisc technology that Dr. Mehra-Chaudhary works with. This technology allows researchers to study membrane proteins outside of something bigger, like a cell, while also keeping them in a functional and native structural state. The nanodisc project is part of collaboration between the MIC and the Electron Microscopy Core to allow researchers to get high resolution structures of membrane proteins.

While affordable, outside and campus researchers must also pay a price to use the facilities to cover consumables, instrumentation maintenance and staff.

“We definitely want to at least break even. I don’t know how long it will take to get there. However, the major goal is to support the scientists on campus and facilitate their research,” Dr. Singh said.

Bringing this support to campus also means supporting future scientists. Dr. Singh has three undergraduate students working with him who are learning how to use the advanced technology, and he helps to train many more from all different departments.

The goal is to one day expand the MIC to a point where all molecular interactions facilities can be at one place.

“There are certain techniques we don’t have, and I hope that in the future we will get them. We hope to provide all modern techniques to the university community in coming years. Not only linked to that room, we want to expand it,” Dr. Singh said.

Dr. Quinn agrees, and he hopes that as researchers come and use the core. In the process the core can understand future needs and where the research is moving to see what new technology under their umbrella could be added to keep supporting the scientists.

The MIC is a big step for the MU research community, and staff is hopeful that it will continue to grow and produce life-altering research.

Eric Fedosejevs #IAmScience

Eric Fedosejevs

Eric Fedosejevs, a postdoc, stands in front of his lab station in the Thelen Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I want to discover how plants decide what to store in their seeds.”

The family garden doesn’t typically turn into a life-long journey of studying plants. But when Eric Fedosejevs went to college, the native Canadian found that plants naturally made sense when deciding what to do with his life.

“Growing up, we always had a big garden with a lot of vegetables,” Fedosejevs said. “And with the ever-present need to increase food supply and address world hunger, combined with the innovation in plant-based technologies, there seemed like a lot of potential in plant biology.”

As a postdoc in Jay Thelen’s lab in Bond LSC, Fedosejevs has gone from longtime student to full-time researcher.

“A major focus of the Thelen lab is to look at oil biosynthesis in developing seeds,” Fedosejevs said.

Specifically, Fedosejevs works with soybean, which is a key crop in the United States because it has such a high protein content. But oil production suffers because of the high protein and his focus is looking at altering that part of the seed.

“The oil content of soybean is not as high as most oil seeds,” Fedosejevs said. “The goal of my project is to boost that content without causing any significant decrease to the valuable protein.”

In his role as a postdoc, Fedosejevs has the freedom to do what he loves with the guidance of an established researcher in Thelen.

“This experience has been great,” Fedosejevs said. “Jay gives a lot of research freedom to his postdocs, so I’ve been able to bring many of my own ideas into my project. I appreciate that a lot.”

When he’s not in the lab working on soybeans, Fedosejevs can be found reading about anything that piques his interest.

“I can spend a whole day reading about a topic I know nothing about,” Fedosejevs said.

It is that dedication to learning that landed him in academia, and it’s also what guided him to a career as a researcher. Fedosejevs, however, believes that genuine curiosity is the foundation for being successful in science.

“If you have that mindset and you find a research area you’re also passionate about, a postdoc is very much something to look forward to,” Fedosejevs said.

He’s able to focus all of his energy on his work, and he loves it.

“I’m really happy coming to work and doing research every day.” Fedosejevs said. “I’m going to keep doing that for as long as I can.”

Patrick Nittler #IAmScience

Patrick Nittler

Patrick Nittler, a Ph.D. candidate in the Division of Biological Sciences at MU, stands near his lab station in the Liscum Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I push through failures knowing that eventually something will work out.”

Breaking things apart and putting them back together has been engrained in Patrick Nittler’s life for as long as he can remember. Growing up, Nittler served as his dad’s sidekick as he salvaged parts of a broken computer to boost performance in their new one. Moments like those were bonding experiences that encouraged the innate curiosity of the now second year molecular plant biology Ph.D. candidate.

Although plants and your run of the mill computer have little in common, Nittler was inspired to follow his interest in how things work.

“I’m a curious person in general, so once I started working with plants I realized it’s something I’m really interested in,” Nittler said.

As part of Mannie Liscum’s lab in the Bond Life Sciences Center, Nittler works on a protein called Nonphototropic Hypocotyl 3 (NPH3) that belongs to a 33-gene member family. This protein is part of the complicated way plants respond to light and the signals that make them grow toward or away from sunlight.

“Right after the photoreceptor in Arabidopsis thaliana receives blue light, it cues a domino effect,” Nittler said. “The protein I study is the next step, and I’m working on characterizing its structure.”

Doing so could help Nittler and his lab to learn more about the rest of the gene family. It could also contribute to his main area of expertise: phototropism, which is how plants perceive and respond to light sources. This can increase the efficiency of photosynthesis by orienting the leaves of the plant toward sunlight.

“They all seemingly do different things, so I’m trying to figure out what influences phototropism,” Nittler said. “We only know what happens after mutating six of the 33, so we’re working to better understand them. Some of them might not have functions, though.”

Nittler, however, directs his attention to just part of the family.

“I work with the three most closely related,” Nittler said. “One of those has a known function and the other two don’t.”

Meaning that two of the three are recognized as genes, but what happens when you mutate them is uncertain. While figuring out what mutations cause is important, Nittler has his attention elsewhere.

In order to better understand the genes, Nittler is attempting to learn the 3D structures of the protein’s middle section.

“We’ve had issues experimentally getting it to work,” Nittler said. “The main thing I want to find out from the 3D structure is why Nonphototropic Hypocotyl 3 is involved in phototropism while its close gene family members aren’t.”

Even though it hasn’t worked out just yet, Nittler continues to try new things in hopes of finding the solution.

“I like the challenge,” Nittler said. “Science doesn’t work a lot of the time, but when it does it’s really exciting.”

Rohit Rao #IAmScience

Rohit Rao

Rohit Rao, a junior biology and psychology double major, works in the Sarafianos Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I get to apply knowledge from the classroom to my research.”

There are a number of ways to get involved in research, but tennis probably doesn’t come to mind. Rohit Rao was practicing his serve alongside Kamal Singh in 2015 when the two began talking about science.

The junior biology and psychology double major expressed his interest in working in research, and Singh offered for him to join Stefan Sarafianos’ lab in the Bond Life Sciences Center.

“I got my first taste of research in high school and found a passion I didn’t know I had,” Rao said. “I wanted to continue to grow as a researcher when I went to college, and meeting Kamal was a pretty clear path to doing that.”

Rao understands the idea that research builds upon itself, which is why learning the basics before coming to Mizzou proved helpful.

“In high school, I did civil engineering research testing water quality from the Missouri River,” Rao said. “It was clearly something I could see myself doing for many years.”

The Columbia native is following in his family’s footsteps by pursuing science.

“My family is full of doctors and scientists, so having that has given me a greater understanding of what goes on,” Rao said. “I was never pushed into it, though, because it’s something I really want to do.”

After graduating next year, Rao plans on attending medical school and applying the knowledge he’s gained from all of his experiences.

“There are things I learn from the lab and then it’s taught in class, and there are things I learn in class that are helpful in lab,” Rao said. “There’s a big class-lab application interaction.”

Those applications have proved helpful for Rao while working with Singh. He has grown as both a scientist and a researcher since that conversation on the tennis courts years ago.

Now, he works with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and contributes to the drug development process.

“We check the biochemical characterization of HIV proteins,” Rao said. “We run various reactions with the HIV proteins to determine their biological characteristics and how the virus mutates to become resistant to approved drugs. Once we do that, we can help choose drugs to overcome that resistance.”

This process serves as the precursor to clinical trials, which ultimately leads to drugs going on the market.

While the work is classified as basic research, Rao is happy to do his part.

“You can’t do applied research without the basic research,” Rao said. “In science, creating the foundation for others to build upon is critical.”

Ashten Kimble #IAmScience

Ashten Kimble

Ashten Kimble works in Walter Gassmann’s lab in Bond LSC studying plant pathogens. | Photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I am constantly learning and questioning. We try to understand life in order to improve it, but every answer brings on new questions and new areas to advance.”

If you walked into Ashten Kimble’s apartment, you’d notice immediately that it’s filled with plants. While some plant biologists refrain from caring for plants on their days off, the graduate student embraces being surrounded by life.

As a part of Walter Gassmann’s Lab in Bond LSC, Kimble is able to analyze the inner workings of plants, too. Her dissertation is about understanding the relationship between a plant’s defense mechanisms and proteins from pathogens like viruses, bacteria and fungi.

“The plant tries to stop the pathogen from invading it, but to do that it has to recognize proteins the pathogen sends inside it,” Kimble said. “I’m trying to see if it’s enough for the plant to recognize half of a pathogen protein and still be able to stop it.”

If a plant is unable to stop the invasion, its fate is sealed.

“The pathogen infects the plant leaf by leaf until it shuts down,” Kimble said.

Specifically, Kimble works with Arabidopsis — a model that is believed to have applicable characteristics to other plants. That means the impact of her findings can be great.

“If the plant can recognize the pathogen protein, I want to know what part of the plant’s DNA that occurs in,” Kimble said. “If I can identify a region [of the plant where it occurs], that information could translate to other plants.”

Doing so could lead to a significant shift in food safety; however, plant diseases are constantly changing.

“We have to think of things in an evolutionary scale,” Kimble said. “I’m working on a specific gene, but in the future what we know about it could change and be very different.”

That would put a wrench in her findings, but the ever-changing nature of plant pathogens serves as a point of excitement for Kimble.

“It keeps things interesting,” Kimble said. “From a science perspective, it’s a good thing. It’s something new to explore.”

The variety in her day-to-day experiences in the lab mirrors why Kimble pursued an education in plants in the first place. She worked in agriculture and was entranced by everything plants are capable of.

“I like the variety of things I can do with plants, whether it’s in the field, a greenhouse or the lab,” Kimble said.

After graduation in Summer 2019, Kimble hopes to enter the industry side of science. She wants to encourage others, especially those who wouldn’t consider themselves science-savvy, to better understand what exists at the root of research.

“I think it’s important for people to be curious and question what they’re told,” Kimble said. “If people seek out knowledge first hand, rather than just go off what they are told, they have better information to make decisions.”