When Will Costigan came to MU he knew he wanted to do research, but wasn’t sure what exactly.
Costigan joined Freshman Research in Plant Sciences (FRIPS) the first moment he could his freshman year to explore his research options.
“When I started, I didn’t think I was interested in plants very much,” Costigan said. “But after getting some experience working in the lab, I found that plants are more important and complex than I could’ve imagined.”
So, he started working in Scott Peck’s lab a year ago, earlier than many of his peers.
“A benefit to joining a lab early is that I can apply what I have learned in the lab to things I’m doing in the classroom,” Costigan said. “I have been very fortunate that there is so much carry over from the lab to the classroom, so I better understand certain concepts and techniques.”
Costigan started off like most people who are new to a lab. He cleaned the dishes, cared for the plants and learned the knowledge needed to research. The Peck lab studies how plants adapt to changes in their environment and infections.
“My research focuses on the regulation of pattern triggered immunity” Costigan said. “Pattern triggered immunity is a plant’s first line of defense against bacterial pathogens. It allows a plant to recognize an infection and initiate physiological changes that stop the infection from spreading.”
This research has implication for both crop resistance and food security.
“Crop production is very important to sustaining civilization,” Costigan said. “As the population continues to grow, equipping our crops with tools to fight disease will be necessary to maintain food security.”
Costigan understands he may not be directly helping someone, but the impact is there.
“Helping people face-to-face is very important but research enables you to develop something, whether it’s a new technique or principle, that can help people on a larger scale.” said Costigan. “The possibilities are endless. I would definitely say that helping people on a broad scale is something I am very passionate about. Science is a great way to help others.”
Costigan may only be a sophomore but he plans on getting a Ph. D.
“Science definitely takes critical thinking skills, but it’s also something you have to be passionate about,” Costigan said. “I have used my passion to better understand terms and techniques. It is kind of its own language in its self, learning how to talk about it and live it.”
You could credit a high school career fair to Amanda Blythe’s early success or simply luck.
Either way, Blythe was younger than most when her research was first published.
“I found a program at Washington University over the summer before my senior year of high school,” Blythe said. “They gave me a research project at the med school focusing on a rare genetic bone disorder. I did a lot of genetic sequencing looking for mutations, which led me to discovering a novel mutation, and we ended up publishing the data. It was a rare, lucky find.”
This find launched Blythe’s beginnings in the world of science.
“At first I didn’t realize how big it was. They included me on the entire review process, most of which I didn’t understand,” Blythe said. “When I told my mom, she seemed to indicate that it was a big deal, but I still did not completely understand the hype. The more people I told, the more I began to realize how great an honor it was. I felt really humbled. I was a summer student and I was only in high school. There were so many people helping me get on this path, it was surreal.”
Blythe’s path continued, leading her to Paula McSteen’s lab at Bond LSC.
“I showed her my resume, and she just kind of looked at it and asked, ‘How did this happen?’” Blythe said. “She was surprised, I told her how it was about being at the right place at the right time, and she was very impressed. It meant a lot coming from someone with that stature in science.”
Blythe is going on her fourth year in the lab. Currently, she works with specific corn mutants to better understand how to increase crop yield.
“Our lab is really focused on corn development — how it develops and what genes are behind that development,” Blythe said. “In order to do that we look at specific corn mutants. Each mutant will have a specific defect, and by understanding these defects we can better understand the function of important genes for proper development.”
Blythe has narrowed in on a mutant called Suppressor of Sessile Spikelet 3 (Sos3), which produces single instead of the normal paired spikelets. When you look at an Sos3 ear, you can see the gaps between the rows of kernels. Blythe is trying to identify the gene that produces paired spikelets in corn, which could lead to higher yield in other grasses such as rice and wheat.
Blythe sees the importance in creating high yield, but she doesn’t see herself doing plant research for the rest of her life. Blythe pictures herself in pharmaceutical research.
“I love my corn research, but I discovered the long-term end goal wasn’t my passion,” Blythe said. “I found that while writing certain project proposals that I was trying to link my project to public health. My PI even noticed and said I should link the two. So I tried it and discovered disease prevention was my true passion.”
Blythe’s fire for research won’t be burning out anytime soon, and her next published article could be in corn or pharmaceutical research, or even both.
“You know how some people get so excited for their goals? Research has become such a passion and goal for me,” Blythe said. “I have found something I get enjoyment from. From the tight-knit scientific community that I have to the experiences to getting new results, all of it continues to drive me every day.”
Like with any family, a new addition brings possibility and excitement.
For Bond LSC, three new faculty promise to enrich research at the University of Missouri by working together across disciplines. Ron Mittler, Wes Warren and Bing Yang all joined Bond LSC recently to continue their research careers.
Bond LSC Interim Director Walter Gassmann said these strategic hires are years in the making and represent how departments and centers come together with a unified goal for MU.
“These are some of the first hires we’ve completed specifically looking at how new faculty could bridge individual research strengths that exist on campus,” he said. “These scientists can bring those strengths together to go in a new direction, and Bond LSC is the perfect place for these faculty to achieve their goals.”
Each researcher comes with a reputation that precedes him. It only takes one look at the framed covers of Nature Magazine lined up in a row in Wes Warren’s office to see evidence of that. The comparative geneticist was recruited from Washington University and has published work in Nature that sequenced the genomes of animals from the orangutan and the gibbon to the elephant shark and the platypus.
“My passion is to crack the black box of the genome and try to find weird and unique traits of various animals,” Warren said. “It’s not enough now to sequence a genome and compare it to others, you have to dig deeper, do wet lab work and try to validate your findings.”
His shared appointment as a Bond LSC investigator and professor of genomics in the Department of Animal Sciences, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, in conjunction with the School of Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine and the MU Informatics Institute, gives him the opportunity to more easily move his research forward.
“My thought is that I can act as a liaison between researchers in these areas,” he said. “I want to keep in mind trait evolution and use that divergence in traits to practice evolutionary comparative medicine to think about disease in humans and companion animals.”
Yang brings a different expertise from Iowa State University where he spent years studying bacterial diseases of rice. His joint appointment as a professor of plant sciences comes from a partnership with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. His research began by looking at plant disease from the bacterial side, but has evolved to also study its host’s interaction.
“Over half the world’s population eats rice as a staple food and by understanding its basic biology we can engineer better rice varieties with disease resistance and yield improvements,” Yang said. “This joint appointment gives me a bigger scientific community and access to more tools to continue my former research while thinking about some high risk, high reward projects that no one has done before.”
Mittler brings a different expertise in plant science to Bond LSC. Most recently at the University of North Texas, his work focused on cell-to-cell communication and how plants respond to multiple stressors — like heat and drought — at the same time. To do this, Mittler studies proteins with unknown functions. One he identified in plants deals with reactive oxygen species, which is a type of oxygen that becomes activated and can cause damage within cells in its toxic forms.
“We don’t really know what 20 percent of the proteins in our body do and in plants it’s more than that,” he said. “One of them was very interesting to me because it responded to reactive oxygen species in Arabidopsis plants, and we found out that a close relative of this protein is found in humans and accumulates to high levels in cancer cells.”
This has led Mittler to expand his work into mammalian cells and will encourage partnerships outside of plant science. With the cancer connection in mind, Mittler has a joint appointment in the Department of Surgery in the School of Medicine
“This is one of the few places in the U.S. that has a medical school, a veterinary school, college of agriculture and a nuclear reactor, so you have a lot of resources available to you, and here I have access to crop fields I didn’t have before and people who do a lot of crop physiology,” Mittler said. “The biggest thing I’ve found here so far is that there is a big drive for collaboration and the walls and barriers between different departments are low. Not a lot of places have this kind of attitude.”
The emphasis on connections across disciplines is key to the larger research goals within the University of Missouri System.
“It’s the research community, the facilities and resources that convince excellent researchers like these to join our research enterprise, and Bond LSC is the perfect place to have faculty from five colleges bump into each other on a daily basis,” said Mark McIntosh, vice chancellor of research, graduate studies and economic development at MU and vice president of research and economic development for the UM System. “Collaborative research is more competitive when it comes to grant applications to federal agencies, and is more likely to lead to innovations and economic development. Our success with interdisciplinary collaborations — like those in the Bond LSC — is the motivation for our focus on building the Translational Precision Medicine Complex (TPMC). I look forward to seeing how our new Bond LSC investigators can build and nurture these partnerships.”
Science and spaghetti are an unlikely combination.
For Toni Morcos, this combination led her to research.
“Growing up, my dad researched muscular dystrophy and my mom was an OB-GYN,” Morcos said. “Every night, my mom would talk about her surgeries that day then my dad would talk about this gene targeting thing. I would be eight years old, just eating spaghetti wondering what the heck they are talking about. And now I’m here studying biology just to understand and be a part of that dinner table conversation.”
Morcos is more than just understanding what the heck they were talking about. Working in Chris Lorson’s lab at Bond LSC, she studies spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). SMA is a genetic disease that most often affects the nervous system of children, causing muscle movement to deteriorate and leads to death.
“Most of what I do in the lab is work with the mice; we study them by injecting them with these different quantities of treatments and chemicals,” Morcos said. “They are naturally sick with SMA. I weigh them all and track their weights and track their outcomes to see how they do.”
This research means creating new treatments to help those affected by SMA to save more lives at a sustainable price.
“There is one treatment that is on the market and they have a monopoly,” Morcos said. “The last figure I saw for it was around $500,000 annually per patient, and no one can afford that. We can’t even, as college students, fathom that much money. It is really important to get another treatment out to drive down costs so more lives can be saved.”
Morcos’ family dinners may not have been like most families, but those talks over spaghetti caused her to advocate for others and science.
She plans on going to medical school where she wants to help those in the health care system. In that light, she studies Arabic alongside biology and currently volunteers through refugee and immigration services. As an in-home tutor she teaches English to refugees and helps them become more culturally educated on American systems. And one of the most difficult of those systems to navigate is the health care system.
“There are translators, but sometimes they’re incorrect,” Morcos said. “I don’t understand everything the translator says in Arabic, but a translator once told a kid to take Tylenol when the doctor said ibuprofen or Advil. That kind of difference is small, but when I can catch something like that you don’t know how often that’s happening.”
This pursuit of new knowledge and desire to understand drives Morcos in life.
“If you stop asking questions or stop looking for answers, as a society, you start to go backwards,” she said. “A problem we have now is people not wanting to know the answers. It’s beyond the lab, its beyond research, people have stopped asking the hard questions and get stuck in their ways. Change isn’t a bad thing, it’s progress. That’s true in science, research and culture.”
Boring may not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of someone’s research story.
But for Juexin Wang, it was a dull job that steered him toward research.
“My undergrad was in Beijing, I was studying computer science,” Wang said. “After I finished my undergrad I went to work in the industry for two years as a software engineer, and I realized that work was so boring to me and I wanted to discover something new.”
Wang went back to school for his masters and Ph.D. in Northeast China. During his Ph.D., Wang had an opportunity to collaborate with Dong Xu in Bond LSC, and he took the chance to come to the states.
“The most advanced technologies were here,” Wang said. “I felt really comfortable when I came here, we could adjust the focus on the research and the platform Mizzou provided was powerful. We have great collaborators, and I think if you have questions people are happy to help you.”
Eight years later you can find Wang going back and forth between the School of Medicine and Bond LSC. His research works with both Dong Xu and Trupti Joshi to combine biology and data sets, a field known as bioinformatics.
“I found possible connections between computer science and biology,” Wang said. “Data that comes from biology reflects biological mechanism on different levels. With computers, software, the algorithms, we can find something new no one has ever seen in wet lab, which may help people understand diseases in human beings and complex traits in other organisms such as plants.”
Wang’s research involves creating new tools and algorithms for the data sets.
“My work has many tasks,” Wang said. “I do algorithms development, and if we have too much data — you can call it ‘big data’ — this causes us to develop new tools that can help understand and tie into the data. My work is trying to develop different tools to help people deal with this same problem in data on their own.”
Too much data, too little time, is why people like Wang are advancing in this science.
“For me, I never found anything really new in my software engineering work, but in research I always touch something new,” Wang said. “New mechanism, new data, new tools. I think that it is fascinating, you always put your passion over yourself. You’re always pushed and this isn’t like anything else.”