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.”

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

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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

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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

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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.