Sam Smith #IAmScience

Sam Smith

Sam Smith, a freshman plant sciences major, works in Walter Gassmann’s lab in Bond LSC. | Photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

“#IAmScience because I overcame my doubts and was able to find my place within the field.”

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

It’s no secret that science is intimidating. The test tubes, white coats and field-specific jargon paint a picture of a field that’s difficult — sometimes too difficult for some people to imagine themselves being in.

Sam Smith, a freshman studying plant sciences through the Freshman Research in Plant Science (FRIPS) program, knows this feeling all too well. She grew up in Bethalto, Illinois, a municipal village that’s about half an hour outside of St. Louis.

“I thought science was cool, but I didn’t feel like I had any space in it,” Smith said.

That is until she figured out exactly where she fit, leading  her to join Walter Gassmann’s lab at Bond LSC and having Chris Garner as her mentor.

“I interviewed with Chris, and it just clicked,” Smith said. “He’s the best mentor, and we have a lot of fun in a professional setting.”

Right now, Smith works with Arabidopsis thaliana to better understand the immune response of plants.

“Chris is supervising me while I work on a project where I’m trying to find a triple mutant to see if it has any impact on the immune response of Arabidopsis,” Smith said. “The goal is to understand immunity regulation because we need to understand how plants are reacting.”

Plant immune responses are important because they can help scientists like Smith to better protect the plant from disease.

“If I find the mutant, I’ll take ribonucleic acid (RNA) out to measure the genetic expression of the immune response,” Smith said. “The more it’s being expressed, the more immune response there is.”

And that will lay the foundation for future applications with other plants.

Being a freshman, Smith acknowledges the impact of FRIPS and research on her experience thus far.

“It has already opened doors for me,” Smith said. “I’ve made relationships with other scientists and grown from working within such a collaborative community.”

For the future, Smith plans on continuing her research throughout her undergraduate career. However, she would love to see more students pursue research because it’s not as challenging to get started in as it might initially appear.

“Anyone can do science,” Smith said. “You just have to take the chance because you can learn so much. It isn’t as scary as you think, I promise.”

Biosafety Breakdown: Understanding the safety precautions taken by labs working with viruses

Graduate student Yuleum Song prepares cells for viral infection in the BL-2 hood. | Image by Jennifer Lu, Bond LSC

Graduate student Yuleum Song prepares cells for viral infection in the BL-2 hood. | Image by Jennifer Lu, Bond LSC

By Madelyne Maag | Bond Life Sciences Center

Viruses can be nasty things and scientists have to take precautions.

You might think of researchers in floor-length lab coats, safety goggles, and plastic gloves or even the more extreme look of bulky, yellow hazmat suits similar to what Jim Hopper wear in Stranger Things. But, depending on the type of viruses being handled, these stereotypes aren’t quite the truth.

For labs like that of Marc Johnson in Bond LSC, safety comes from the incomplete nature of the HIV viruses they study. The viruses in Johnson’s lab are defective, meaning they cannot reproduce themselves. It doesn’t mean the virus is completely safe to handle. If it were to come into contact with another living being it would only infect the cells exposed to the virus and could not expand further. With defective strains of HIV, the virus can be grown at biosafety level two.

This level two is one of four levels of biosafety that are used to define how a lab might be physically set up and how its researchers are equipped in order to contain a virus. The levels act as more of a scale than a concrete definition of the lab since the type of virus being handled by a lab can vary.

Johnson, a professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, says that his lab teeters between BSL-2 and BSL-3 depending on what type of virus they are working with.

“Our lab is classified as a BSL-2 (Biosafety Level 2) because we work with pathogens that have a low chance of spreading and a low chance of doing significant damage if they do spread,” said Dr. Johnson. “This simply means that our lab is shut off from anyone outside the lab who might try to come in outside of business hours. We also equip our staff with safety goggles, and gloves while they work with a virus under a Laminar Flow Hood to keep the air sterile.”

The major difference between levels like BSL-2 and BSL-3 often comes down to the type of virus being handled, whether it be something like HIV or a more lethal infection like SARS. The Laboratory for Infectious Disease Research is one of the only facilities on the MU campus, that can be classified as a level three. Because the lab handles airborne viruses, they take extra precautions to regulate air and waste coming out of the facility.

The highest level of biosafety can be identified as BSL4, which typically handles deadly viruses such as Ebola that could cause significant harm if it spread. This is where the terrifying and bulky hazmat suits come into play. The virus being handled in a BSL-4 lab comes with a high risk of researchers being infected if the proper steps are not taken to properly handle or contain the virus.

There are no BSL-4 laboratories in Columbia. In fact, one of the nearest labs won’t be opening its doors until 2022 in Manhattan, Kansas. These levels of safety are simply put in place to protect those who wish to study a virus and further medical research for the rest of the world.

The different levels of Biosafety might seem frightening to some, but there is nothing really to fear. These precautions are put in places just as signs that remind us to wash our hands after using the restroom. They are ways to prevent the contamination and spread of viruses and disease. MU Researchers don’t just have these precautions in place to protect everyone around them. They also have these precautions in place so that viruses like HIV can be better understood and treated by medical professionals around the world.

Garren Powell #IAmScience

Garren Powell

Garren Powell is a freshman involved in research through the Freshman Research in Plant Sciences (FRIPS) program. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

“#IAmScience because research helps fulfill the curiosity I have for learning about the world around me.”

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

Some people spend their whole lives trying to figure out what they want to do. Garren Powell, however, has known that science was his route for as long as he can remember.

“As a kid I was always the one doing my own little science experiments at home,” Powell said.

It’s no wonder he wound up as a biochemistry major at Mizzou. He works in Richard Ferrieri’s lab at the University of Missouri Research Reactor (MURR), which he found through Mizzou’s Freshman Research in Plant Sciences (FRIPS) program.

One day last summer, Powell was scrolling on his computer when he came across a posting for FRIPS. He immediately knew he was interested.

“I wanted to get involved in research,” Powell said. “I had already grown up around corn and farming, so I wanted to be able to see a different aspect of it.”

And the rest is history. After being accepted to the program — which chooses a select class each year — Powell’s next step was finding a lab.

“Before interviewing at any labs, FRIPS gave us a list of options,” Powell said. “From the beginning, I knew I wanted to work in the Ferrieri lab.”

Now, Powell works with Risobacteria — which colonize near the root system of plants — to help better understand malnourished soil.

“We’re trying to see how the bacteria interact with the root system to increase iron and the nutritional value of corn,” Powell said.

Doing so will allow his lab to help alter the farming industry.

“Dependency on nitrogen fertilizers is one of the reasons the soil is being stripped of nutrients,” Powell said. “Reducing that will help to create more sustainable farming practices.”

And his work isn’t just lab basics. He’s doing real research and getting his feet wet in the industry.

“I get to do actual projects and not just wash dishes,” Powell said. “In the Ferrieri lab, I have the chance to become a better researcher.”

Even though he’s just begun his career in research, Powell is excited to see where things will go from here.

“I’ve always been involved in science,” Powell said. “And doing it in a professional setting is something I’ve always dreamed of.”