David Porciani was inspired into a science career.
Growing up along the Mediterranean Sea in Livorno, Italy, Porciani was fascinated with all different types of science, until he met two high school mentors.
“They inspired me,” said Porciani, who now works in the Burke Lab at Bond LSC. “They were both chemistry teachers, and I have always been fascinated with studying chemistry in biological systems.”
One of his mentors words to him stuck with him and shape how he decides what direction to explore.
“He said try to ask yourself not obvious questions,” Porciani said. “I realized I wanted to do that even though I was so young.”
After high school, Porciani stayed in Italy and studied pharmaceutical chemistry and technology, but during his Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics, he came to MU for one semester and met Don Burke.
“In Italy, there are many good research teams. However, because the financial resources are limited, these teams are, sometimes, not very collaborative, thus limiting the progress of science” Porciani said. “In contrast, MU encourages you to do collaborations and I learn a lot from our collaborative teams. If you are good in one thing, you can find someone else in another field for working together to both achieve a goal. This increases the impact of the overall research.”
When Porciani finished his Ph.D., Burke offered him a job in his lab. Porciani is studying “smart” ways to detect and treat cancer cells in the Burke Lab.
“Most of the therapeutic drugs are not able to discriminate the cancer cells among the healthy cells,” Porciani said. “They are killing both cells, and the treatment can have harsher side effects than the cancer itself. I am trying to develop smart molecules that can bind with high affinity receptors that are sometimes uniquely expressed on the surface of cancer cells, thus representing a cancer signature. The idea is to use these aptamers as vehicles to deliver chemotherapeutic drugs or diagnostics”
After two years in the Burke Lab, Porciani and others recently published their work in Nature Communications, a victory for Porciani and the lab.
“When I published the paper, I was like ‘yes! I made it,’” Porciani said.
Porciani still keeps in touch with his mentors, but now he is in their same position.
“I have the chance to mentor and share my passion with students,” Porciani said. “I am learning from them too, it’s continuously pushing yourself beyond the limits. I put myself in a challenged position. They help me do my research and this really inspires me.”
8,124 miles. That’s how far Ph.D. student Ha Duong traveled from home to work in the Stacey Lab at Bond LSC.
Duong came from her home in Vietnam where she studied plant sciences at Hanoi University of Agriculture. A chance encounter brought her to MU.
“Back in my last year of undergrad, a professor from MU came and gave a talk,” Duong said. “I thought about MU. I then received a fellowship then chose here. I got it so it is destiny.”
With some questionable looks from her mother when she first heard of the idea, Duong went for it anyways. Despite a significant culture change from Vietnam to Missouri, Duong is embracing the change as an opportunity to get to know herself better.
“I get to compare these two countries and see the differences,” Duong said. “Which will always be good for me.”
Duong’s love of science stems from hanging out in her father’s material physics lab growing up. Duong did not realize the impact this would have on her until looking back on all the times of being in his lab.
“When you grow up, certain things you do not realize, get to you,” Duong said. “I quite liked the environment, it was quiet and you have your own creativity.”
Years later, Duong is now going into her fifth year as a Ph.D. student. She is trying to find the missing components in the extracellular ATP signaling pathway in plants. ATP is a high-energy molecule typically found inside cells where it stores and supplies the plant with fuel, so it is somewhat surprising that it also has a signaling role outside of the cell.
The Stacey Lab discovered the first extracellular ATP receptor in plants, so now the research is digging more into their discovery. Duong is happy about being around pioneers in plant science and wishes to be a pioneer as well.
“The moment I realized I am into science is thinking about how today I can discover a new thing,” Duong said. “But while it starts with the theories, later it can turn into an even bigger thing and have applications throughout life.”
To Duong, science can be applied from the lab to her home.
“Science means daily life to me,” Duong said. “Science influences the way I am thinking and how I do the simplest thing most effectively. Almost everything around us, we can criticize it using science. I am a practical person so anything you can apply to life is what I like.”
However, Duong emphasizes that science isn’t always as serious as one thinks. She has flexibility and creativity when it comes to her work and being half the equator away from home while studying what she loves makes missing home a little easier.
“I miss home, but not miss miss it,” Duong said. “I have work to do every day, and you need to do what you need to do and finish it. I do miss the food a lot, though.”
Endocrine disruptors alter baby mice calls generations later
By Roger Meissen | Bond LSC
The sounds can seem like a mix between a bird tweet and a high-pitched scream to us, but these vocalizations that baby California mice make are essential to how they communicate with their parents and siblings.
Exposure of grandparent mice to bisphenol A (BPA) and related endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) may alter that communication in their grandoffspring, potentially affecting the communication between pups and their parents and the resulting parental care provided to them.
According to a new study, MU Bond Life Science Center’s Cheryl Rosenfeld and an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the US and Germany looked at how this communication alters from normal patterns across multiple generations of California mice.
“We specifically wanted to see if grandparents were exposed, would that affect the communication of the grandoffspring?” Rosenfeld said. “What we saw was that in some cases, some aspects of their vocalizations became even more pronounced. It might be a response to multigenerational exposure to EDCs or they might be calling more because they aren’t receiving sufficient parental care in an effort to say, ‘hey, you’re neglecting me; please pay attention and provide warmth and nutritional support to me.’”
Studies from Rosenfeld previously found that BPA caused lax parenting and neglect in first-generation mice when their parents were developmentally exposed to the chemical. This chemical acts as an endocrine disruptor and mimics the effect of hormones like estrogen in animals, altering their development. BPA is prevalent in the environment because it’s heavily used in manufacturing and leaches out of our plastics, linings of food cans and dozens of other sources.
The study showed female babies tended to make shorter calls out to parents early on after being born, but as they aged they called out more, and male babies made longer calls in early postnatal periods and spoke more as they aged. These patterns were different from controls not exposed to the chemicals.
“Exposure of the their grandparents to EDC’s is altering these grandoffspring behaviors and that could have important ramifications to human babies and how EDCs might affect their initial form of communication, crying,” Rosenfeld said. “This follow up work is clearly important because children with autism have communication deficits, as evidenced even in their early crying patterns, and altered social skills. We’re always trying to find animal models like this that might explain whether exposure to environmental chemicals is increasing the incidence of autism or autistic-like signs in animal models.”
California mice are an especially useful model for studying behavior changes, because these mice are monogamous and both mom and dad are essential in rearing their pups, similar to most human societies. This allows scientists to potentially extrapolate their behavior changes to humans.
In this study, both female and male grandparents were fed one of three diets — A BPA diet that contained an environmentally relevant concentration of this chemical, an ethinyl estradiol diet or diet free of any EDCs. Ethinyl estradiol is another disruptor found in birth control that mimics the effect of estrogen in the body. All offspring were fed the chemical-free food after being weaned off the parents. They had babies, and these grandchildren were the generation scientists looked at to study their communication.
The grandchildren were recorded with special microphones that could pick up the calls of the babies in isolation booths. These sounds range from communications humans can’t even hear as they are high in the ultrasonic range- greater than 20,000 hertz- to communications that begin in the range of human hearing and then project into ultrasonic range. When researchers lowered the frequency of these high-pitched calls to a range we can hear they sound like a mix between owl screeches and bird tweets (how the vocalizations appear and sound are included below for the reader to decide for themselves) . They then compared them to normal mice, looking at the length of each call and the pattern of the calls, what they refer to as “syllables.” Each syllable is akin to an individual sentence or phrase in humans.
These calls from BPA exposed mice were compared to the ethinyl estradiol and the mice not exposed to any chemicals.
“We’re seeing clear traits emerge in this F2 generation with the vocalizations and I think it lends credence to the idea that these things could tamper with vocalization patterns, which are incredibly important in how pups communicate with each other and their parents, whether it’s because they are trying to get more attention from exposed parents or what we call multigenerational effects in that the exposure of their grandparents directly affected their later grandoffspring traits.”
The study, “Multigenerational effects of Bisphenol-A or Ethinyl Estradiol Exposure on F2 California Mice (Peromyscus californicus) pup vocalizations,” was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Grant (5R21ES023150) and was published in the journal PLOS One June 18, 2018.
Answering the unsolved questions is a lifetime commitment for fifth year Ph.D. candidate Rowan Karvas in the Roberts Lab at Bond LSC and Laura Schulz’s lab at the medical school in the Obstetrics and Gynecology department.
Originally from St. Louis, Karvas came to Mizzou and found her keen for science through her undergrad research working on adult muscle cells, but it wasn’t until she became a technician in a radiation oncology research lab at Washington University when she realized she wanted to continue research throughout her life.
“I remember a moment when a grad student, Danny Stark, and I were isolating quail embryos,” Karvas said. “We opened them up and I saw their beating tube hearts and all the details. Just looking under the microscope at them was so fascinating to me, I realized that I wanted to keep doing biological research.”
Karvas believes asking questions is what we often forget to do as a society, and in a scientific world with unlimited questions, she knows the one she’d most like to answer.
“I would like to solve pre-eclampsia,” Karvas said. “It’s a disease that’s most likely been with us since we have been human, and it is a disease that deserves to be solved.”
Karvas works on two projects researching human placental development. The pregnancy disease pre-eclampsia often goes unnoticed until later in pregnancy, but causes dangerously high blood pressure, kidney damage, and a placenta that is underdeveloped and has not invaded the maternal endometrium efficiently.
Karvas was eager to work on this problem and so she started grad school two months early.
“This disease if often very deadly for women and in the most severe forms causes death,” Karvas said. “It is the leading cause of maternal fatality in the developing world and is becoming a problematic issue in the states. There are no rock solid genetic, physiologic factors, or environmental stimulus that accurately predicts who will get this disease.”
And that’s why Karvas spends her time researching how and when pre-eclampsia develops during pregnancy.
In Karvas’s first research project, she is looking at modifications to the genetic code that could be responsible for pre-eclampsia and her second project is finding the answer to the question, “at what stage of pregnancy does our cell model represent?”
When Karvas isn’t in the lab you can find her aiding to bridge the gap between clinical scientists and basic science researchers as president of Interdisciplinary Reproduction and Health Group Trainees. The new group involves graduate students and post-doctoral researchers from animal sciences to biochemistry, all coming together to further explore reproductive science.
“It makes me happy and it is very satisfying to start the group and be a part of the groundwork for its continuation,” Karvas said. “Fostering these relationships with people you may have not met otherwise is important.”
When Karvas isn’t running her group or in the lab, you can find her playing the clarinet. Before discovering her love for science she wanted to be a professional performer.
“It is an opportunity to use the other part of my brain,” Karvas said. “I get to shut off the science part and bring on the musical part.”
Students choose colleges for a number of reasons: location, price, programs offered. Stephanie Scott was just a kid the first time she stepped onto Mizzou’s campus, and she knew it was the school for her.
“We took a field trip, and I fell in love with the place because it had three swimming pools,” Scott said.
While that’s not a typical selling point for places of higher education, it proved enough to plant the seed for Scott, who works in the Thelen Lab at Bond LSC and just finished up her freshman year.
Scott’s didn’t end up in Bond LSC accidentally, either. She’s a Discovery Fellow through the Honors College, which gives her a scholarship to work as a research assistant.
“The program paired me with Dr. Thelen and Eric Fedosejevs as my mentor,” Scott said.
The campus-wide program allows students of all majors to get involved in research for two years, and it has opened the door for Scott to get started in hands-on science early.
In the lab, Scott works to isolate plastids — which contribute to the food-making abilities and color of plants — in soybeans.
“First, we pick the leaves or beans and keep them on ice. Then, we go back down to the lab and run them through a juicer to break them up,” Scott said. “We run them in an isolation buffer and, after that, we spin them down in the centrifuge to get the plastids to pellet out of the solution. Then we re-suspend the pellet and layer that over a sucrose gradient.”
That process understandably takes all day, but it’s something Scott has found a passion for. And it has the possibility to make a big impact — the ultimate goal is to get more oil out of soybeans to increase the food supply.
“I think it’s fun,” Scott said. “It’s a challenge because the plastids behave differently every time. They’re really finicky.”
And her introduction to research so early in her college career has made Scott evaluate the ways in which her future could incorporate the lab.
“When I first came here, I was dead set on being pre-med,” Scott said. “I was planning on using research as a stepping stone, but since I’ve started actually working in the lab I figured out I love it. I feel like I might actually make a difference.”
Really, that’s all she could ask for.
“If I didn’t like research so much, I wouldn’t care as much as I do,” Scott said. “I love the people I work with, too, and that makes it seem like it’s not even a job.”