“#IAmScience because it’s extraordinary knowing that a small step towards a treatment could positively impact someone’s life down the road.”
Megan Sheridan doesn’t let anything slow her down.
From presenting at the Society for the Study of Reproduction’s Trainee Research Competition last week—and winning first place—to finishing up her thesis while working in Dr. Michael Roberts’ lab, she’s always juggling multiple projects. Sheridan is finishing up a Ph.D in biochemistry and hopes to graduate in December 2017 or May 2018, depending on how quickly she finishes writing her thesis.
“I was lucky enough to pick up a project studying Zika virus infections early in pregnancy,” she said. “It was one of those perfect timing moments, and we ended up getting some pretty exciting results off the bat. Now I’m really inspired by the direction my thesis work is going and find that my projects are very different but that makes things exciting.“
Sheridan’s thesis focuses on using stem cells as a model for early placenta development and how preeclampsia and viral infections like Zika impact a pregnancy. Preeclampsia is a condition during pregnancy that causes high blood pressure and protein in the urine. The disease likely occurs in the first trimester, but the symptoms don’t evolve until the 2nd or 3rd trimester. To study it, Sheridan uses stem cells generated from umbilical cords of babies born to mothers experiencing preeclampsia or a normal pregnancy, and then uses those cells to determine what defects in the placenta might contribute to the disease preeclampsia.
“I would like to learn as much as possible about the placenta and human pregnancy,” she said. “There are so many unknowns in this area of research because you can’t access the placenta during a pregnancy without disrupting the pregnancy. There are many complications that effect the mother and baby, and if more was known about normal placenta development in pregnancy, then we may be able to better understand and prevent some of those complications.”
Sheridan completed her undergraduate degree at MU, and urges undergraduates to get started in research early, as she believes it gives students a stronger foundation for graduate school. She also believes that mistakes are part of the research process, and wasn’t afraid to share one that she made early on in the Ph. D program.
“I remember in my very first rotation as a graduate student I was learning how to transfect cells with DNA so we could do a reporter assay. We were in the process of adding all the reagents, and between the student I was working with and myself we got confused about who added what,” she laughed. “Somehow, we never added the DNA- an integral part of the transfection! So a week later when we were analyzing the data, we noticed there were no values at all.”
After graduation, Sheridan hopes to experience living outside of Missouri for her postdoc placement. She’d like to stay in academia, and looks forward to continuing to research and teach.
Perhaps one day she’ll even return to MU and Bond LSC!
“#IAmScience because there are people suffering all over the world and this is where I’m most likely to make any kind of an impact.”
When he came to MU three years ago, Kevin Kaifer knew he wanted to work in Bond LSC. He felt it was where the best science and collaborations were happening on campus, and everything that he needed for his research – a vivarium, a Genomics Technology core, and proteomics core – were all conveniently housed here.
“I entered research because I thought the complexity of cellular life is the most fascinating topic in the world,” said Kaifer. “I wanted to be a part of it.”
He completed his undergraduate degree in biology at Truman State University and is currently part of Dr. Christian Lorson’s lab. There, Kaifer is learning transferable skills – everything from communication skills to the production of recombinant gene therapy vectors – all of which will give him a strong foundation for a career in industry.
“The growing promise of gene therapy as a safe and realistic treatment option has led to the start up of many biotech companies that are making really exciting progress,” he said. “This is where I think I will be best able to contribute to science and therapy.”
For undergraduate students who are just getting started in a science field, Kaifer emphasizes that success in science comes and goes.
“In my own personal experience, success in science only comes after a significant set of hurdles,” he said. “You have to be okay with feeling stupid, because part of your job description is to answer questions to which you do not know the answer. I would actually be concerned if you were not struggling to feel successful.”
When you bite into corn-on-the-cob or a burger you probably aren’t thinking about what tiny compounds are entering your body or about how they can be improved.
But scientists are.
Those tiny compounds are amino acids and serve as the building blocks of protein. They also play a major role in a recent interdisciplinary research project at the Bond Life Science Center.
Look no further than crops like corn and soybeans. While widely eaten by both livestock and people worldwide, these plants are deficient in several essential amino acids and it takes a lot for the consumer to be satisfied. Amino acids make up a large portion of human’s cells, muscles, and tissues. They are also an important part of nutrition.
“So what do you do in order to get what you need? You eat more, right?” said Ruthie Angelovici, a Bond LSC scientist. “That’s a very big problem.”
Angelovici said the solution lies in learning to manipulate amino acids to improve the quality of the seed.
Previous experiments to improve a crop’s level of amino acid have not had much success, so Angelovici decided it was time to try something different.
She decided ask if different appearances across plants, like the size of leaves or color, have any connection based on the seed it grew from.
Past research suggested that the same genes may control both seed nutrition and aspects like structure, but Angelovici’s research is unique in its combination of research on plant structural characteristics, DNA polymorphism and metabolism. A competitive seed grant of $99,690 from Bond LSC helped get this work off the ground.
She decided a few new tools and people were needed to explore this.
Learning a new language
That’s where Heather Hunt from the College of Engineering and Scott Givan in the MU Informatics Research Core Facility come in.
While Hunt has a background in bioengineering, for years she has teamed up on projects in the Plant Sciences department.
“There’s a lot of things we do as engineers that can be very useful particularly to people in plant science, particularly in terms of equipment and instrumentation, helping them develop faster methods to do things,” Hunt said.
High throughput phenotyping is one of those things. This catalogues a large number of physical features from a study group.
The team determined the research required the rapid collecting of this characteristic data from a large number of plants and multiple levels of analysis. To achieve this, the team envisioned the construction of a physical cart along with the development of hardware and software.
Hunt explained, in the past, students from a bioengineering capstone class would work on a project like this, but the teams kept running into the same problem.
“They were all talented and dedicated and hardworking but there were just things they didn’t know because they weren’t a computer engineer or a computer scientist, so they knew how to code but they didn’t necessarily have the breadth of skills someone in that area would,” Hunt explained of her past project experience.
This time an interdisciplinary team made up of undergraduates in mechanical, biological and computer engineering combined to figure out if a plant’s physical characteristics hint at the content of its seeds.
The team spent the last semester building a high throughput phenotyping station costing more than $10,000 from scratch. The station is on wheels can easily be moved between growth chambers. Equipped with cameras, the device photographs eight plants at once. The images capture the plant color, leaf size, and shape along with other characteristics in seconds.
But the road to this final product came with some communication challenges caused by the multiple educational backgrounds of each team member.
“Sometimes we’d have conversations where we’re talking about one thing and we’re trying to all find the phrasing that makes sense to us and we kind of just go around in a circle and then we eventually figure it out, but we get there in the end,” Hunt explained.
Both Angelovici and Hunt said when working in an interdisciplinary team, it is very similar to having to learn a new language.
“As a biologist, I think it’s very interesting to look at how engineers are thinking on things, so working with Heather, for me, was illuminating. We work very differently, we have different languages of how we think about an experiment,” Angelovici said.
Despite minor communication barriers, Hunt said the project has gone unusually smooth for her and credits the interdisciplinary team and the in-depth planning.
“All this interdisciplinary work will be our future in biology, so I think this is a great start for them and for us,” Angelovici agreed.
Now that the station is built, the team is taking the summer to work out kinks and begin initial data collection.
While they hope to one day evaluate crops, the current work is with multiple the model plant, Arabidopsis thaliana.
Data collection for the mock experiment is expected to start late summer. When it does, the team will take photos of many, many plants throughout their four-week life span. The images will then be analyzed for things like the shape of the leaf, the area of the rosette, color, and plant size.
“If you can determine the amino acid content in the seed and there’s a specific physical trait of the plant that it portrays, then you can tend to look at a plant and say ‘ok that comes from the bad seed,’” said bioengineering student Jacob Gajewski. “They can then modify it to where they only grow plants with the good phenotypes.”
By December, Angelovici hopes to determine if there is a connection between what the plants look like and the quality of the seeds.
If that connection is established, the next step is to figure out how the two are correlated and if the research and hypothesis are translatable to crops.
This seed funding is one of seven awarded this year at the Bond Life Sciences Center. These awards, which range from $40,000 to $100,000 in funding, foster inter-laboratory collaboration and make possible the development of pilot projects.
Ruthie Angelovici is an assistant professor in the Division of Biological Sciences, and is a researcher at Bond Life Sciences Center. She received her degrees in plant science from institutions in Israel — her B.S. and M.S. from Tel Aviv University, and her Ph.D. from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the Weizmann Institute and at Michigan State University, and has been at MU since fall of 2015.
Heather Hunt is an assistant professor in the bioengineering Department at the University of Missouri. She earned her B.S. from Iowa State University and M.S. along with her Ph. D from the California Institute of Technology. She was awarded the 2010-2011 WiSE Merit Award for Excellence in Postdoctoral Research and the 2015 3M Non-tenured Faculty Award for her current biosensors research at Mizzou.
Scott Givan is the associate director of MU’s Informatics Research Core Facility. He earned his B.S. in biochemistry from Purdue University and his Ph. D in biology from the University of Oregon.
“#IAmScience because I believe that the collective pursuit of scientific knowledge is what moves us forward as a species.”
In the time leading up to Christopher Garner’s dissertation defense, you never would have known if he was nervous. He was confident and composed, and the conference room at Bond LSC was completely filled with his professors, friends and well-wishers. Dr. Walter Gassmann gave a complimentary introduction to the dissertation, saying, “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a student so prepared.” Needless to say, Garner passed with flying colors.
Garner completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. After graduating, he went to work on a small R & D team at a St. Louis company. That was his first experience with research and his mentor was influential in persuading Garner to go to graduate school. During graduate school at MU, Garner worked in Gassmann’s lab at Bond LSC, researching the inner workings of the plant immune system. His favorite part of working in the lab was constantly conducting new experiments.
“It’s really satisfying to make a prediction and then see it come true,” said Garner. “It can be equally exciting to see things are radically different than what you predicted.”
His dissertation – “Should I slay or should I grow? Transcriptional repression in the plant innate immune system” – focused on the tradeoffs between growth and defense that plants face when mounting an immune response. While the immune response is essential for the survival of plants in the face of pathogen infection, expression of defense-related genes can interfere with growth and development and must therefore be kept under tight control. His research identified a protein involved in preventing an overshoot of the immune system after it has been activated, thereby contributing new information to the field.
“If there is some way in which I can contribute to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, be it through research or teaching others about science, then I feel like I have done something worthwhile,” said Garner.
“#IAmScience because science is the best way to solve problems and help people. And the laws of nature write fascinating stories.”
Walter Gassmann, the new Interim Director of Bond LSC, has been an important part of the MU science community for more than a decade. He’s a member of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group, a researcher in Bond LSC and a professor in the Division of Plant Sciences within the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.
His research deals with how plants fight diseases and he specifically investigates the inner workings of plants’ immune systems, which are highly specialized in detecting the presence of foreign and potentially harmful organisms. Apart from figuring out how this detection works, Gassmann is interested in finding mechanisms that plants use to keep their immune system in check. The plant immune response is very potent in stopping pathogen spread, but if left unchecked it has the tendency to harm the surrounding plant tissue as well.
Fundamental plant pathology research, what Gassmann’s work deals with, has contributed to many agricultural gains, and will continue to provide avenues for improved crop yields. It has also led to many new insights for biology in general. For example, the concept of a virus was first developed in the late 1800s with work on tobacco mosaic virus. The tit-for-tat between plants and their pathogens has shaped plant immune systems and pathogen countermeasures for eons, and also affords a fascinating glimpse into the processes that shape the evolution of complex organisms.
In recognition of his outstanding contributions to plant pathology, Gassmann was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2016.
How bossy insects make submissive plants create curious growths
By Samantha Kummerer | Bond LSC
They are bumps on leaves, bulges in stems and almost flower-like growths from plant tissue with a striking amount of variety. They are galls.
These unnatural growths garnered the curiosity of Jack Schulz for years. While he’s spent 40 years studying topics from Insect elicitors to habitat specialization by plants in Amazonian forests, what he’s really wanted to study was galls.
“It’s so weird,” said Schultz, director of the Bond Life Sciences Center. “I’ve always been really curious about how these strange structures form on plants.”
Schultz has spent the last two years trying to answer that question, looking at their development and the underlying genetic changes that make galls possible.
He’s not alone in his fascination.
“I found my very first gall when I was a masters student,” said Melanie Body, a postdoctoral researcher in Schultz’s lab. “I was really excited because it was here the whole time, I just didn’t see it. One of my teachers showed me and it was like a revelation, basically, what I wanted to work on.”
These “strange structures” are often mistaken for fruit or flower buds on a variety of plants from oak trees to grapevines and there’s a good reason why…
“A gall on a plant is actually, at least partly, a flower or a fruit in the wrong place,” Schultz said.
These galls can be the size of a baseball or the size of a small bump depending on the plant. They can also range from just small green bumps on the undersides of leaves to vivid complex growths of color.
Despite the variety, the one thing consist across plants is that the gall is not there by the plant’s choice.
“The insect has a pretty good strategy because it starts feeding on the plant and it will create a kind of huge structure, huge organ, where it can live in, so it’s making it’s own house,” Body said.
The reasoning behind the formation is relatively unknown, however, it is hypothesized that the insect flips a switch within the plant. The insect is not injecting anything new, but rather turning off and on certain genes within the plant.
Schultz explained the galling insect has the power to changes the expression of genes and in some instance disorient the plant’s determination of what is up from down.
So how does this affect the plant?
Not only is the insect creating the gall against the plant’s nature, it is also using the plant’s energy and materials for the job.
“I think it’s very cool to imagine an insect can hijack the plant pathway to use it for its own advantage,” Body said.
The insect receives protection and a unique food source and in turn, the plant is left with fewer resources.
“From the plant’s point of view that’s all materials that could have gone into growth and reproduction, so you can think of these galling insects as competing with the plant they’re on for the goodies the plant needs to grow and reproduce,” Schultz explained. “That’s not so good for producing grapes.”
Grapevines are just one of the many plants that galls can form on, but also the plant Schultz’s research uses.
“In our case we work on grapes, so it can be a big issue if the fruits are not sweet enough anymore, because if you don’t have sugar in the fruit then it’s not good enough for the wine production, so it’s pretty important,” Body explained.
In Missouri, the story of grapevines and galls goes back to the 1800’s.
The story goes, the phylloxera insect found its way over to France. Soon it spread throughout the country; wiping out vineyard after vineyard.
“The great wine blight and the world was going to lose all wine production because of this pest,” said Schultz.
Luckily, a small discovery in native Missouri grapevines led to a solution that allowed wine drinkers to rejoice and scientists to puzzle.
“There’s something about the genes in Missouri grapevines that protects them against this insect,” Schultz explained.
While the European wine industry faced extinction, the phylloxera insect, coexisted with native Missouri grapevines. So, now every grapevine in a vineyard is grafted with insect-resistant roots from Missouri grapes.
But, no one really understands what’s so special about grapevine roots in Missouri.
These galls aren’t new. They’ve actually existed for up to 120 million years. But, here’s what is:
“When we started this research, we thought this is a really well-studied insect,” Schultz said. “It turns out there is an awful lot we don’t know about them.”
The team collects samples of galls from grapevines at Les Bourgeois. Back in the lab the galls are dissected using very small tools and then examined with a microscope. Under the microscope, a colony of the insects emerges. The otherwise miniscule mother insect and her 200 eggs can be seen alongside other insects just moving around the gall.
Body compares the insects’ round textured bodies to oranges but with two black eyes.
Schultz’s team hypothesized that there are specific flower or fruit forming genes that are necessary for the insect to create a gall.
To answer this, the team looks at which genes are turned on when the insect creates the formation of a gall. Those observations by themselves don’t prove which genes are essential. So, next, the researchers manipulate the genes by changing the gene’s expression.
“If we find that Gene A is always on when the insect causes a gall to form, we can stop the expression of Gene A to test the hypothesis that it needs gene A to get the gall to form,” Schultz explained. “We can ask a plant. If you lack Gene A, can our insects still form galls?”
The researchers are still analyzing the results, but the current findings suggest that some genes do reduce the insect’s ability to make a gall.
Since beginning the research two years ago, Schultz said he has discovered, “all kinds of crazy things”.
Schultz said it was previously believed that the insect was staying in one place when making the circular gall, but actually, the little insect is moving around; something no one realized before.
And that’s not the only myth this research is debunking. For example, many believe there is one insect per gall, but this turns out to be incorrect. The gall can actually become a hospital of sorts where many mother insects flock to move in and lay their eggs.
And although galls sounds like an odd area of study, the research actually falls under basic developmental biology.
Schultz said research on galls could lead to discoveries about flowering and fruiting.
“Finding a situation in which flower or fruit structures are forming in odd places is actually suggesting to us, pathways and signals that are probably not as well studied in developmental – normal flowers and fruits,” Schultz said.
Beyond curiosity, one of the reasons to study the galls is to find a way to reduce the number of pesticides used on grapevines. The small size of the galling-insect causes grape growers to spray a lot of chemicals.
There’s a lot of discoveries, a lot of implications, but also still a lot of unknowns. Schultz doesn’t let that discourage him.
“If we knew everything about all kinds of things in nature, I’d be out of business and we’d have nothing to do,” Schultz reassured.
The curiosity behind the research continues to hold true for both Schultz and Body outside the lab. From collecting galls for each other to photographing the mysterious spheres, the two are always on the look out for the hidden work of the tiny insect.
Research quadruples speed and efficiency to develop embryos
By Samantha Kummerer | Bond LSC
What started as a serendipitous discovery is now opening the door for decreasing the costs and risks involved with in vitro fertilization (IVF).
And it all started with cultured pig cells.
Dr. Michael Roberts’ and Dr. Randall Prather’s laboratories in the University of Missouri work with pigs to research stem cells. During an attempt to improve how they grew these cells, researchers stumbled across a method to improve the success of IVF in pigs.
“Sometimes you start an experiment and come up with up with a side project and it turns out to be really good,” Researcher Ye Yuan said.
The Prather lab in the MU Animal Sciences Research Center uses genetically modified pig embryos to improve pig production for agriculture and also to mimic human disease states, such as cystic fibrosis. Roberts’ team in the Bond Life Sciences Center occasionally collaborates with Prather’s lab to produce genetically modified pigs for this valuable research. However, the efficiency of producing these pigs is very low because it depends on multiple steps.
First, scientists remove oocytes (“eggs”) and the “nurse” cells that surround them from immature female pig ovaries and place the eggs in a chemical environment designed to mature the eggs, allowing them to be fertilized in vitro with sperm from a boar. This process creates zygotes, which are single-celled embryos, that are allowed to develop further until they become hollow balls of cells called blastocysts about six-days later. These tiny embryos are then transferred back into a female pig with the hopes of achieving a successful pregnancy and healthy piglets.
However, Roberts said the chance of generating a successful piglet after all those steps is very low; only 1-2 percent of the original eggs make it that far.
The quality of the premature eggs and the process of maturing them significantly reduces the rate of success.
“In other words, all this depends on having oocytes that are competent, that is they can be fertilized, form blastocysts and initiate a successful pregnancy,” Roberts explained.
Normally, researchers overcome the low success rate by starting out with a very large number of eggs, but this takes lots of time and money.
So, lab researchers, Ye Yuan and Lee Spate, began tinkering with the way the eggs were cultured before they were fertilized, making use of special growth factors they used when culturing pig embryonic stem cells.
Yuan and Spate added two factors called fibroblast growth factor 2 (FGF2) and leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF).
This combination helped more than the use of just a single factor and so they decided to add a third factor, insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1).
Together the three compounds create the chemical medium termed “FLI”.
“It improved every aspect of the whole process,” Roberts said. “It almost doubled the efficiency of oocyte maturation in terms of going through meiosis. It appeared to improve fertilization and it improved the production of blastocysts.”
In all, the use of FLI medium doubles the number of piglets born and quadruples the efficiency of the entire process from egg to piglet.
While the researchers are still figuring out why the three factors work together so well, Roberts believes it has to do with the fluid that surrounds the immature eggs while they are still in the ovary.
Roberts explained that unusual metabolic changes happen in the eggs and their nurse cells when the three components are used in combination but not when they are used on their own. These components are also found in the follicular fluid surrounding the egg when it is in the ovary.
However, follicular fluid actually contains factors that hinder egg maturation until the time is right, so it would seem counterintuitive to add the fluid to a chemical environment aimed at maturing the eggs. However, when freed from the other components of follicular fluid, the three growth factors act efficiently to promote maturation.
“It just creates this whole nurse environment for that egg. Once you’ve done that you’ve sort of patterned them to do everything else after that properly — fertilization, development of that fertilized egg to form a blastocyst, and the capability of those blastocysts to give rise to a piglet,” Roberts said.
Researchers hope the FLI medium can be translated beyond genetically modified pigs.
“If we could translate this to other species it could be more meaningful,” Yuan explained.
For the cattle industry, FLI has the potential to decrease the time between generations in highly prized animals.
Currently, if an immature dairy cow has desirable traits, the industry has to wait a year or so for that cow to mature and for its eggs to be collected. Using FLI medium immature eggs could be retrieved when the prized female is still a calf. After fertilizing them with semen from a prized bull, production of more cows with desirable traits could be achieved in a shorter amount of time.
The potential implications of this discovery aren’t just for farm animals.
Yuan said if this treatment could be applied to humans it would be a big help for both the patient and the whole field of human IVF.
Currently, in vitro fertilization for humans comes with high costs and risks.
“You try to generate a lot of eggs from the patients by using super-high doses of expensive hormones, which is not necessarily good for the patient and can, in fact, be risky. ” Roberts explained.
These eggs are then collected, fertilized, and the best-looking embryo transferred back to the patient. As in pigs, this overall process isn’t all that efficient. The hope is that the treatment of the patient with hormones can be minimized if immature eggs are collected directly from the ovary by using an endoscope and matured in FLI medium, allowing them to be just as competent as those retrieved after high hormone treatment.
“The idea is it would be safer for the woman, it would be cheaper, and it might even achieve a better success rate,” Roberts said.
The team still has some time before knowing for sure if FLI medium is applicable in other mammals.
Yuan said the focus is now on understanding the mechanism behind how the three compounds work so well together.
For now, preliminary data are being collected with mice and a patent is awaiting approval. Still, the team has high hopes for this almost accidental finding.
“Whenever you’re doing science, you’d like to think you’re doing something that could be useful,” Roberts said. “I mean when we started this out it wasn’t to improve fertility IVF in women, it was to just get better oocytes in pigs. Now it’s possible that FLI medium could become important in bovine embryo work and possibly even help with human IVF.”
Michael Roberts is a Bond LSC scientist and a Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Animal Science, Biochemistry and Veterinary Pathobiology in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) and the College of Veterinary Medicine. He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Randall Prather is a Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Animal Science in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) and Director of the National Institutes of Health funded National Swine Resource and Research Center.
“#IAmScience because I am fascinated by life on a molecular level and inspired that my research could positively impact medicine.”
As a graduate student in Donald Burke’s lab at Bond LSC, Paige Gruenke explores the role of ribonucleic acid, or RNA. That means her work involves a lot of test tubes. She looks at how specialized RNA molecules, called aptamers, bind tightly and specifically to proteins from HIV to prevent the virus from replicating. Her job is to locate the aptamers that bind to HIV proteins from a very large starting pool of RNA sequences by doing repeated cycles of removing the sequences that don’t bind and keeping the ones that do, until the strong binders dominate the population.
“A lot of the things I do don’t sound very exciting,” said Gruenke. “It’s throwing components into tubes and waiting for things to happen. It might sound mundane, but it’s all for the greater good.”
Gruenke hopes that her research will give scientists a better understanding of HIV, because understanding the virus will lead to better drug treatments and eventually, a cure. She is finishing up her second year as a Ph.D candidate in biochemistry, and plans to graduate by summer 2020. Gruenke has always been interested in the area of molecular medicine, but she has some advice for students who are just getting started.
“On a day to day basis, many experiments fail,” said Gruenke. “You’re always going to be learning something you didn’t know before. So, don’t be disheartened because something didn’t work out — just keep trying. Because whenever you have an ‘Aha!’ moment, it makes it all worthwhile.”
How an MU student helped start a Twitter trend and how social media is advancing science.
By Mary Jane Rogers | Bond LSC
In the modern age, science isn’t a solitary endeavor.
You might be a tweet away from connecting with scientists about their work, as one MU student recently proved.
Dalton Ludwick, an MU doctoral student in entomology, helped spur a hashtag trend to connect real scientists with none other than Bill Nye.
If you follow any scientists on Twitter, you may have come across the hashtag #BillMeetScienceTwitter while scrolling through your feed. Thousands of scientists on Twitter introduced themselves to the famous TV host of Bill Nye the Science Guy using the hashtag. By May 22, a mere three days after the hashtag started, more than 27,000 scientists and experts had tweeted at Nye.
#BillMeetScienceTwitter was born from a Twitter discussion between Ludwick, London-based zoologist Dani Rabaiotti and New Zealand-based marine biologist Melissa Marquez.
The original sentiment behind the hashtag was something scientists have long been discussing — that Nye’s television show doesn’t include a diverse array of science experts to answer questions outside Nye’s specialty. On Season One of his show, a majority of the experts Nye invited were comedians, supermodels and Hollywood stars, like Karlie Kloss and Zach Braff.
We were curious about the origins of this campaign, so we reached out to Ludwick, one of the creators of the hashtag.
Ludwick regularly uses social media to reach out and connect with other scientists. He meets other scientists on Twitter, shares ideas and often turns that conversation into a real-life, professional relationship on a global scale.
“I talk to people from the UK, Australia and New Zealand on social media,” he said. “It’s a great way to connect with people.”
Social media is a game changer for scientists who once felt walled off from the broader world. It can be a great way to connect with people doing similar research, track grants and jobs, share exciting breakthroughs, and follow conferences.
Jared Decker, an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at MU, is another avid social media user on campus. He uses Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts to connect with other science professionals and academics, as well as his public — mainly beef and cattle producers and farmers.
“Just the other night I was writing a grant and one of the reviewers had a specific criticism,” he said. “So, I got on Twitter and asked my question. A colleague of mine was online in Australia and was able to respond to make sure we were meeting the guidelines.”
Scientists used to have to walk down the hall to ask a colleague, or play phone tag with someone abroad.
“You can’t do that at 1 a.m.,” said Decker, “but you can go on Twitter.”
Many scientists believed that Nye’s television show wasn’t utilizing his vast array of science connections to find experts in specific fields of science.
“If you ask me about biology or oncology, I probably shouldn’t answer because that’s not my area of expertise,” said Ludwick.
In response to a tweet by Rabaiotti, Mike Stevenson was the first to ask if anyone had reached out to Nye on Twitter. Ludwick replied to that conversation with the hashtag #BillMeetScienceTwitter, which was meant to show Nye the diversity of scientists on social media.
Rabaiotti – a Ph.D candidate at University College London, who studies the effects of climate change on wild dogs in Africa – was the first to introduce herself to Nye.
Overall, the tweets and engagement have been overwhelmingly positive.
We decided to tweet at Nye too!
“What we were actually trying to do was reach out and offer assistance in areas outside the expertise of Bill and Neil,” said Ludwick. “We wanted to show the diversity of people doing science, as well as the diversity of the science that we do. More than 50 percent of the people tweeting on #BillMeetScienceTwitter were women — certainly not just a bunch of nerdy men in lab coats!”
Ludwick adds that the hashtag wasn’t intended as an attack on Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson, another scientist celebrity with broad reach. Instead, the point was to let them know that fellow scientists exist and can be a great source for accurate scientific information.
Nye responded to the hashtag, and even took the time to retweet and reply to his favorite posts.
Overall, the hashtag was a huge success, brought awareness and engaged scientific topics. But more than that, it shows how responsive and positive the scientific community can be. Some news articles noted that the campaign was “trolling in the politest way possible.”
“The scientific community on Twitter is really welcoming,” Decker said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a first year science student or an endowed professor. People don’t treat you any differently.”
And an online presence is vital for scientists and their careers. In 2007, BioInformatics LLC conducted a survey of 1,510 scientists with regard to how they used social media. They found:
77% of life scientists participated in some type of social media
50% viewed blogs, discussion groups, online communities, and social networking as beneficial to sharing ideas with colleagues
85% saw social media affecting their decision-making
For junior scientists or researchers who are just getting started, Decker has some advice.
“Tweeting out at conferences is a good way to practice taking in an idea and getting it back out there in written form,” Decker said. “Instead of taking notes, tweet out what you would have written down.”
#BillMeetScienceTwitter also helped bridge the gap between scientists and the public. Ludwick said that this hashtag helped flip the public perception that scientists are only old men in lab coats on its head.
“People were saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to show my daughter this and inspire her,’” Ludwick said.
Ludwick also thinks that, in general, social media makes him better at communicating science to the public.
“Twitter is a great way to break things down and stop using scientific jargon,” he said. “I think it has helped me personally and it’s great practice.”
Decker agrees with Ludwick’s assessment.
“The first few months on the job it felt like I was back in Spanish class,” he joked. “I was taking the science jargon and doing mental gymnastics to translate it into the language a lay person would understand. But, now I’m fluent in both!”
So, think twice the next time you consider social media to be a waste of time. Whether it’s a hashtag that brings issues to the attention of science celebrities, platforms that connect scientists at a global level or posts that make research more accessible, social media has done a pretty cool job of advancing science.
Graduate Researcher Sarah Unruh explores the essential role of fungi in orchid germination
By Emily Kummerfeld | Bond LSC
The blooms of orchids are unmistakably beautiful, and how they reproduce has fascinated biologists for centuries.
But, orchids might not even exist if not for the help of fungus. Up to 30,000 species of orchids require the intervention of fungi since their seeds do not contain the necessary nutrients to sprout.
Sarah Unruh, a fifth-year biological sciences PhD student in the lab of Bond LSC’s Chris Pires, seeks to discover and record the specific types of fungi utilized by many orchid species. By studying their specific genetic expressions, she hopes to uncover what allows these fungi to interact with orchids in this way, how these fungi are related to each other and what genes each organism is expressing with and without each other.
“The main question for me is, what is the nature of this relationship? Is it more mutualistic or parasitic? You don’t often get something for nothing, so why is the fungus participating in this relationship? Most fungi that live in plant roots receive carbon from the plant. Orchid fungi are doing the opposite and that is weird. I want to know how this relationship works,” Unruh says.
Unruh first studied orchid evolution and how each orchid species related to each other genetically. “My assumptions of what a plant was were so violated by orchids and it still fascinates me! So many orchid species grow on trees, many don’t have leaves, some species never even turn green or photosynthesize.”
This focus soon evolved into her interest in the relationship between orchid plants and fungi. Fungi are neither plants nor animals, and have their own branch on the eukaryotic family tree. They are nonetheless essential to plant biology, “eighty percent of plant species have beneficial fungi in their roots,” says Unruh.
Many orchids are technically classified as epiphytes, which means they grow on the surface of another plant and get all their food and water needs from the air, rain and what accumulates nearby. That doesn’t leave a lot of extra nutrients to put into seeds, which typically need the store of food to sprout and grow its first leaves.
That’s where fungi come into play. Some types of fungi can even germinate several species of orchids, and studying the DNA sequences of these fungi could be vital in the future for endemic endangered orchids and their associated fungi. “I’ve always been interested in relationships between organisms or symbioses,” says Unruh, “the fact that orchid seeds need fungi to survive was too weird not to research.”
But the process of studying fungi DNA is not a simple one.
“In order to look at their genomes, I need to grow a lot of fungi and then grind it up and add certain substances to isolate only the DNA. I send this DNA to a facility called the Joint Genome Institute where they send it through a machine that spits out a file with a list of lots of small pieces of the genome – like puzzle pieces. I then use computer programs to put the pieces together and try to assign a function to each gene.”
So, the established relationship between fungus and seed helps the orchid, but it’s not known what the fungus is getting out of this arrangement. One idea, based on recent published research, is the fungi receives a certain form of nitrogen from the orchid seeds. Another experiment Unruh is working on is growing the orchid seeds by themselves through special media, growing the fungus by itself, or growing them together. She then measures the gene expression to see if there are big differences when the plant or fungus is alone or together. “This will help answer my question of how mutually beneficial this association is,” says Unruh.
The data collected from this research will form the bulk of her PhD thesis. However, there remains many questions regarding the relationship between orchids and fungus that Unruh would like to explore in the future, such as which fungi are best for reintroducing endangered orchid species or what other roles fungi play in their environment. “I foresee fungi, especially plant and fungal relationships, becoming the focus of more and more research in the future.”
In 2014, Unruh received a three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship. More recently, she has received a grant from the Joint Genome Institute to sequence 15 full genomes of orchid fungi.