Two years ago, Paul Martin found his love for biology in a freshman-level non-majors course. He’s now a researcher in Walter Gassmann’s lab helping to study transcription factors that regulate a plant’s immune response to bacterial pathogens.
Martin grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, near Arrowhead Stadium and has always loved sports. He recalled caring more about baseball stats in school than learning. By the time he reached high school, he loved to write and thought he could make a career out of it.
“I hated school until eighth grade,” he said. “I just it didn’t interest me.”
Originally a business and journalism double major, his biology professor approached him and told him he had a knack for it. It was that interaction that made him realize that his love for science could turn into a career in research.
“I’m very happy,” he said. “I wish I could go back and switch freshman year so I wouldn’t have to try to catch up.”
He hopes to one day work for the government through USDA or research through a university. He’s really interested in plant genetics; the challenge and joy of learning something new bring him back into the lab every week.
” I love learning how every little piece interacts, learning why things do what they do and getting answers to big questions that maybe no one has yet,” he said.
Balancing schoolwork, research and other interests has been the biggest challenge for him so far, but he values the opportunity to learn about a lot of different topics. He hopes to minor in philosophy for fun and is frequently listening to political podcasts. Right now, he’s listening to “Love it or leave it” by crooked media.
Along with his intellectual interests, he also loves to calm down by sketching.
“I’m not overly creative,” he said. “So I have to have something to base everything off of, but I enjoy it when I have time.”
Martin, like many scientists, is a goal-oriented individual. When he sets a goal, he said he’ll stop at nothing to make sure it gets done. Right now, he wants to run a half marathon before he graduates and he wants to get into a good graduate program.
He’s looking into Kansas State, University of Oregon, MU and the University of Toronto to study plant genetics and immune systems. He hopes to end up here at MU but said that he will go where the research takes him.
“Unlike most other things, there is really no subjectivity to science,” he said. “Everything’s objective. Even if you don’t know exactly what’s objective about it, eventually you discover the objective truth underlying what you’re studying.”
Martin said he’s proud of the progress he’s made amongst some great colleagues and hopes to continue improving.
“I really like the people,” he said. “I like the laid back atmosphere and I’m really looking forward to what the future has in store for this lab.”
Plant biologists across the country opened their mailboxes last month to the glowing leaves of Arabidopsis on the cover of the latest issue of Molecular Plant.
That cover taken by post-doctoral researcher Yosef Fichman of Bond Life Sciences Center depicts plants fluorescing in response to reactive oxygen species (ROS) propagation, a technique that allows researchers to track plant response to certain stressors.
The novel approach is the first of its kind to image the response of an entire plant, rather than small samples. To make this technique work, Fichman — who works in the lab of Bond LSC’s Ron Mittler — and his collaborators came up with the idea to fumigate the plant with a dye which enters the plant, reacts with ROS inside the plant and fluoresces under an in vivo imaging system (IVIS). From there, the researchers could watch the stress signals of the plant as they evolve in real-time following the application of different stresses.
ROS are essential regulators of cellular and systemic signals in plants as well as animals. Additionally, they play an important role in hormonal, physiological, and developmental reactions in plants such as growth and development as well as defense and acclimation to environmental stress.
ROS are both beneficial and detrimental to plants. On one hand, they regulate basic biological processes. On the other, if overproduced, they are toxic to cells and can cause cell stress or death. However, recent research by the Mittler lab supports the idea that, at certain levels, ROS can be more beneficial than harmful because they have the power to signal defense mechanisms against stressors in the environment. In essence, it is a way for cells to communicate with each other, creating a domino effect, or wave that sends a message to nearby cells and eventually over long distances within the plant.
Now that they have a technique to detect the fast-moving ROS signal in plants, the researchers can identify the proteins that are involved in the plants’ response to stress. The signal is important because it causes fast adjustments to stress within the environment, which means that other parts of the plant that are not subject to stress can build up protection mechanisms.
“In order to understand plants’ response to stress, we need to know the mechanism of that’s going on in plants,” Fichman said. “Basically, it’s a balance of resources within the plant.”
Currently, the researchers are working with Arabidopsis, but this technique applies to other plant and crop models. Previous methods of tracking biological responses in plants included the arduous process of gene manipulation and expression. The new method allows for a straight-forward approach to tracking and monitoring the biological reactions in plants.
Moving forward the researchers plan to use Arabidopsis mutants and other plants to track the response to different stresses compared to the wild type to see if there are changes in the genes involved. Fichman is particularly interested in the effect of abiotic stresses, such as high-intensity light and leaf destruction by insects.
“Whether you like to call it weather extremes or global climate change, there are changes. Plants are a main food source, so we need to be prepared to create better plants for the future that allows crops to grow in stressful conditions such as high light, less water and heat,” Fichman said. “If plants invest more resources into protecting themselves they will be able to survive these changes and continue to produce food for our future. I’m studying this mechanism in ROS waves and in different pathways to create better plants in the future.”
By understanding the proteins that are involved in plants’ response to stress, researchers can begin to re-engineer plants to survive harsher conditions. Fichman’s technique makes it easier to recognize plants’ responses to stress moving forward.
For Yosef, when it comes to research, imagination is the only limitation.
“In research, we can come up with the craziest ideas and science allows us to check those ideas and discover new things,” Fichman said. “This is why I wake up in the morning.”
Growing up on farm in Brazil, Fernanda Amaral often wondered why her father had to treat the soil with nitrogen fertilizer between growing cycles. She questioned why the soil wasn’t enough to consistently provide crops the nutrients they needed to grow and flourish.
Amaral remembers her father explaining soybeans take a lot out of the soil, leaving nothing behind for the next batch of crops. So, he needed to artificially treat the soil with chemical fertilizers to continue the harvest cycle, maintain his business and support his family.
“I used to go and help him harvest and I was always amazed by the process. I have two siblings, and for us it was very fun to watch,” Amaral said.
As she progressed through her undergraduate degree at the Federal University of Pelotas and into her Ph.D. program at the Federal University of Santa Catalina, Amaral realized the enormous cost and environmental disadvantages of nitrogen fertilizers.
“I wanted to understand the process of fertilizing soil and became interested in how we can improve the quality of it without spending so much money to produce it,” Amaral said. “I was always wondering why the soil wasn’t already naturally good enough.”
Her neighbors, who owned a farm the same size as her family, had to spend half of what they were making just to purchase nitrogen fertilizers. She remembers thinking “there has to be a better way.”
As a post-doctoral researcher in the Stacey lab, Amaral works with plant microbe interactions and focuses on the genes that are triggered by beneficial bacteria in plants. Some plants, such as soybeans, form root nodules when associated with bacteria. In turn, the nodules release nitrogen for the plant, which helps them grow healthier, produce stronger roots and yield more seeds.
She’s trying to understand how plants take advantage of the bacteria found in soil, which genes in the plant are involved, what’s in the bacteria that makes the mechanism work and how bacteria recognition happens in soil.
Amaral works with a grass model plant, which does not nodulate in response to the presence of a bacteria, making it more difficult to study the mechanism. But understanding the interaction at this basic level helps researchers compare what they know about the interaction to crops in the field.
This research could one day mean creating cheaper, more environmentally friendly bacteria-based fertilizers on an industrial level.
Unlike nitrogen fertilizers, non-pathogenic bacteria-based fertilizers are natural and don’t have the potential of water contamination.
Before her post-doc, Amaral spent one year in the Stacey lab as a visiting scholar as part of the Science Without Borders program, funded by the Brazilian government.
“I was drawn back to the lab because people were very nice,” Amaral said. “It’s a big lab compared with my former lab in Brazil. We have a very international lab and there are a lot of people from different cultures, so I’m always learning about other countries.”
Now, when she talks with her dad, Amaral finds he understands the results of scientific processes in the field, such as taller plants and green leaves after fertilizing the soil, which is a fun entry point for her to talk about the scientific mechanisms behind those results.
“When I talk to my dad about the technology, he has a general idea of what it is. He has so much knowledge of the fieldwork that sometimes even though he doesn’t know what the technology involves, he recognizes the outcomes of using those technologies in the field,” Amaral said.
Looking to the future, Amaral plans on wrapping up her last research project within the next 10 months. She hopes to work at a company in the agriculture industry that has a good mission and aims to help farmers improve production and reduce costs.
“Everything that starts in the seed ends up on our table. I want to do whatever I can to make a small difference,” Amaral said.
Years at MU lands student turned faculty tenure-track position
By Mariah Cox | Bond LSC
Where can passion, hard work and more than a decade worth of experience get you? They landed Maggie Lange-Osborn her own research lab on the University of Missouri campus.
Lange is starting down that path in Bond Life Sciences Center but will move to a permanent space in either the Medical Science Building or Schweitzer Hall eventually. She’s excited to spread her wings and establish herself independently of her past role in the Bond LSC.
In the meantime, she’s working arduously to build her lab from the ground up. From small materials such as plastics for cell culture, pipettes and pipette tips and chemicals to make buffers to large expensive equipment, Lange will eventually need it all.
“Walking into the lab, you don’t realize all of the things you need to do an experiment. When I walk into my lab space, I literally have nothing,” said Lange, a newly appointed assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology (MMI). “You have to think about all of those things, you know it’s not just the equipment it’s the pipettes, the incubators, the hoods and then also the materials to put in those things.”
Luckily with 10 plus years in the building, Lange knows of all of the shared resources available to her, so she doesn’t have to invest in many expensive machines just yet.
“I cannot wait to do my first experiment with my own equipment,” Lange said.
Lange began her career at MU in 2003 as a Ph.D. student in the Molecular Microbiology and Immunology and Veterinary Pathobiology Graduate Program, whether she knew it at the time or not.
When applying for faculty positions, Lange worried that she would be placed in a box, unable to separate herself from her graduate work if she stayed at MU. With time, she’s found that hasn’t been the case.
“Even though I’ve been here for so long, I’ve been able to surround myself with people who know more than me and who have different areas of expertise than I do,” Lange said. “I can still branch off and learn a lot from other researchers, which is what I found really attractive about Mizzou.”
Her segway into research occurred during her first year as a graduate student in an MMI lab in the School of Medicine. Under Michael Misfeldt at the School of Medicine, Lange studied pattern recognition receptors in the innate immune system, which is the body’s first line of defense against a virus or bacteria.
The specific receptor she worked with recognizes a component of viruses. From there, Lange wanted to understand how a host is able to respond.
“After working on that I felt like I had a really good grasp of the host response side and I wanted to get more of the virus side to understand virus replication and what types of replication mechanisms work to signal the host from that perspective,” Lange said.
That led Lange to join Bond LSC in 2008 as a post-doctoral researcher in Donald Burke’s lab. Known for specializing in HIV research and viral biology, the Burke lab gave Lange the opportunity to understand virus side interactions.
Lange wasn’t quite ready to move on at the end of her post-doc, and the success with her research led Burke to invite her to stay on as an assistant research professor.
“During that time, I was more exposed to leading people and mentoring people in the lab. I was able to get some teaching experience in that role as well in the infection, immunity and advanced virology classes,” Lange said. “The position evolved into really enjoying all of the components that would be required for a tenure track position and it grew from there.”
In her sixth year as an assistant researcher, Lange decided she was ready to run her own lab. However, she knew it would be a challenge to secure a faculty position and even more difficult to stay at MU.
But, her experience in the Burke lab and her proven ability to obtain grant funding worked in her favor.
“It’s really nice to stay in Missouri because mine and my husband’s family are here,” Lange said. “When I was growing up, my dad was in the military and we moved around a lot, so I never got to know my grandparents or cousins. It’s really nice now that my kids get to have those relationships with their extended family.”
Her goal with her new lab is to combine her knowledge of viral interaction in the body and hosts’ response to infection.
Three projects currently in the works for grant submission focus on host-virus interactions and how different host factors and viral proteins interact during replication. One specific project looks at the host factors that are involved in HIV induced death caused by different HIV proteins.
“While HIV has been around for a long time, there are still things we don’t know about it. With the research, I’m getting back to my innate immunity roots and looking at exactly how viruses interact with innate immune receptors and signaling pathways and how that interaction dictates pathogenic outcomes,” Lange said.
Understanding the death pathways for HIV can lead to the development of a strategy to preserve T cells and facilitate the death of the virus. Additionally, it can lead to the development of therapies toward eradication.
Her excitement isn’t just for her new lab, it’s also for her newfound opportunity to provide students with lab experience and open up the possibility of research for those who haven’t had access to it.
“I’m from a rural community and I didn’t even know that a Ph.D. existed when I was in high school,” Lange said. “I’d really like to present those opportunities to people like me who have no idea that they’re even available. There are so many things you don’t realize are possible because of the environment that you’re in whether it be in rural or inner-city communities.”
While unknowingly launching her career at the outset of her Ph.D. program, Lange is grateful her path led her here.
“It’s been really fortunate for me, the way the whole process developed. I love this building and the awesome people I’ve met here, but I’ve been here since 2008, so having a fresh perspective elsewhere could be beneficial. I’ve worked a long time with both Marc Johnson and Donald Burke and being away from the building will allow me to meet new investigators and establish new collaborations,” Lange said. “While we still have very productive collaborations and have promising, active projects, it will help demonstrate that I’m separate from them and have my own interests as well.”
It’s a sensitive balance between growth and defense when it comes to plants.
While a built-in, passive immune system helps them survive attackers, this response halts the growth and development of the plant, something that fascinates Ben Spears in the lab of Walter Gassmann at Bond LSC.
“In our lab, we try to pick apart the different signaling pathways governing these processes of growth and maintaining an immune response; we think of them as distinct processes, but, in reality, they are all interconnected,” Spears said. “If we can unlock the ability to manipulate how these signaling pathways work together to allow the plant to decide whether to grow or protect itself, it’ll go a long way toward producing plants that are better adapted to their environments.”
That’s what has led Spears to work with the Arabidopsis TCP Transcription Factor family. Transcription factors are proteins that “turn genes on or off,” as Spears puts it. They selectively activate certain sets of genes by interacting directly with family-specific sequences of DNA.
Spears is a postdoc researching molecular plant genetics such as the plant-specific (TCP) transcription factor family. Classically, the TCPs — named for early family members TEOSINTE BRANCHED1 (maize)/CYCLOIDEA (snapdragon)/PROLIFERATING CELL FACTOR (rice)— have only been known to regulate things such as branching, leaf size, growth, and other external structures of the plant, but, more recently, the Gassmann lab and other groups have identified them as regulators of immunity, making it the perfect subject of research. Spears focused on one of the multiple layers of this function to hone in on immune response in this family of transcription factors.
Detecting an attack
At the surface of a plant cell, there are receptors that will identify the presence of bacteria, and then initiate an immune response in the plant. Spears found that several members of the TCP family seemed to turn on this immunity process. This discovery, along with previously understood processes of growth in TCP showed that these two responses are tied together locally. It is this connection that has sprouted a high level of excitement and interest in the hormone biology research community recently.
“In terms of overall impact, this is a really exciting family of proteins,” Spears said. “They’ve been on the scene for a while, but only recently they’ve started to explode in terms of broad interest in the field. It’s nice to work on something that others are interested in, it makes you feel like you’re doing something that could potentially have an impact.”
Spears said it always comes back to the tradeoff between these two plant processes.
“A plant may be immune to pathogen infection, which is great because agronomically we want our crops to not be affected by pathogens out there, but it can come at the cost of growth, which affects the yield,” he said.
There’s a tight regulatory control system in plants that decides how it will spend its energy resources, and it’s affected by factors such as heat, water, light availability, or pathogen stresses. If researchers can better pinpoint the connection of these growth-immunity processes, they are one step closer to creating crops that can be better suited to their environments.
The nuts and bolts of this work involved a lot of bacterial infection assays and basic genetics, but a new technique presented a challenge for Spears. Chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP-Seq) technique helped demonstrate the direct interaction between Spears’ protein, the transcription factor of interest and the DNA. He said it was tricky for the lab because they hadn’t tried this method before, so he had to consult outside resources and push himself to learn new skills. Transcription factors control the rate at which a cell converts the DNA blueprint into the RNA messenger that carries the instructions to make proteins for a cell’s structures, enzymes and signaling, among others.
Collaboration across scientific fields almost always leads to better science, and Spears said conversations with researchers of different expertise helped push him into the next portion of his research. A common theme amongst researchers in Bond LSC, he values the community atmosphere and intellectual diversity.
“This study focuses on the other side of the equation, plant growth, and the role that TCPs may play in the plant response to brassinosteroids, an important group of phytohormones controlling plant growth,” he said.
After two years of work and a successfully published paper, Spears entered this next phase of research, a launchpad into a second experiment on brassinosteroid signaling. He’s trying to figure out how this operates on both sides of growth and defense at the same time.
“There is what we think to be a large regulatory transcription complex that these transcription factors may be a central component of, so the piece that actually does the work turning genes on and off,” he said. “There’s still a lot to learn.”
Ultimately, Spears and others are interested in more clearly identifying how TCPs interact with and/or are controlled by these other pieces to help plants decide whether to defend or to grow.
Researchers are interested in this because the intricate trade-off affects agriculture in significant ways.
“Yield is important to a world that is desperately going to need to feed people in the future, specifically under increasing amounts of duress,” he said. “Growth environments aren’t getting better; they’re changing, and when things change, host-pathogen interactions change too. In the future, microbes that weren’t necessarily pathogenic might become pathogenic because of shifts in temperature, humidity and light that is available to them.”
Since proteins secreted from a pathogen ‘target’ the TCP-family and biochemically change how the TCP protein works to promote infection, it’s only natural for scientists to try to lessen the hardships crops endure. So, it should be clear that if pathogens are interested in specific transcription factors, then researchers should be, too, according to Spears. If researchers can better understand why and, by extension, tell what the transcription factors are doing, then they can potentially understand how to knockout that weak link that allows for infection and limit an attack within the plant.
Spears said that the interactions between a host and pathogen change faster than researchers can change to combat it, so they must better understand what those pathogens are doing to continually be better in the future. He said this research has the potential to help a world that needs reliable agriculture. Though some parts of the research were stressful, a great team made it a fantastic experience.
Saurav Sarma grew up amongst tea plantations and medicinal plants in the northeastern corner of India near Tibet, a state called Assam.
His day-to-day observations of the plants sparked a curiosity that eventually led him to a career looking at the chemical building blocks behind it all in the labs of Lloyd Sumner and the University of Missouri Metabolomics Center at Bond Life Sciences Center.
His interest revolved around the connections between carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen, which make up living systems.
“How they’re connected makes all the difference,” he said.
Sarma enjoys working in the metabolomics core because of the incredible facilities and collaboration. Among other things, his job is to look for thousands of molecules to find biomarkers for various diseases.
“The purpose of the core is to profile the small molecules,” he said. “So, for example, a group might want to see the molecular differences between a healthy plant and a diseased one. There are thousands of molecules, so you need sophisticated techniques to profile those molecules because they are otherwise unknown.”
Sarma works with people on and off campus who are curious about the molecules in their areas of research, but he also does data analysis, communication and collaborative research project. He enjoys the diversity of his job, which is focused on how molecules shape our lives.
“Finding something new is always exciting,” he said. “Science can always surprise you.”
While he finds this research to be fascinating, he also enjoys how it can help people and push civilization forward. From health to the economy to agriculture, he said science benefits us in ways we often don’t realize or think about.
“So, it’s not that my work is great, it’s that everybody’s work is great,” he said. “Everything that we use nowadays didn’t come up in one day, it’s from people’s hard work over many years, and maybe someone will benefit from our work in the future.”
Things may not always go as planned, but he doesn’t let that stop him.
“In science, nothing is a failure,” he said. “The knowledge you are generating today is helping researchers in the future, so learning how to deal with failure and keeping an open-mind is important.”
He said that it’s easy to get stuck in mental patterns, and by keeping an open-mind, you’re more likely to see or think of things you might not otherwise see in your own research, in conversations and daily life, too. Many of the most important discoveries of humanity occurred outside of the normal paradigm. And while ‘failure’ can be challenging and frustrating, he said it makes the success more significant.
“As a synthetic chemist, I run a hundred reactions and maybe 10 work and 90 fail,” he said. “So, it helps you to deal with failures, but it also feels great when you reach a goal. You are getting through hurdles and it gives you this satisfaction of getting something done that wasn’t easy to get done.”
He received his undergraduate degree in science, followed by a masters in organic chemistry before making the journey to North Carolina for his Ph.D. in medicinal organic chemistry. After his Ph.D., he arrived at MU in the radiology department for his postdoc. While there, he developed a trimodal drug delivery system called closomer to help minimize the side effects of cancer.
“I was fascinated by working with drug delivery systems, but then again, it was about molecules and their characterization and identification,” he said. “That’s been a binding thing throughout all of my research.”
Apart from science, he loves the classics – literature, music, sports and movies. He’s currently reading “Thousand Splendid Suns.” He also loves hanging out with his four-year-old daughter watching cartoons. “I don’t have any exceptional hobbies,” he said.
A personal career goal of his is to develop sophisticated methods for exploring more of the chemical space that is still unknown, and he hopes to see a greater breakthrough for cancer treatment in his lifetime that allows for less pain and side effects.
Dry erase markers and Styrofoam molecular models are a part of Amanda Paz Herrera’s repertoire when teaching complex scientific processes to the average person.
Teaching the next generation of scientists requires work and discipline, but Paz Herrera is up for the task.
Paz Herrera takes her science on the road with Science on Wheels, a traveling group of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers at MU who aim to make science accessible to rural communities in Columbia’s surrounding counties. Sciences on Wheels visits schools, nursing homes, clubs and public events making it imperative to communicate complex scientific processes and mechanisms to all learning levels.
“We should be able to build a knowledge bridge to communicate what we as scientists do without jargon making people feel uncomfortable,” said Paz Herrera, a third-year biochemistry Ph.D. student in Donald Burke’s lab at Bond LSC. “We’re supported by taxpayer money, so the community has a right to know how that money is being used and how we’re moving forward scientifically.”
Paz Herrera emphasizes the importance of diversity and representation in the field on top of her passion for science education and outreach.
“Scientists look like you and me and there’s way more diversity than is depicted in popular thought,” Paz Herrera said. “One of the reasons I do science on wheels is to show what a scientist can look like and that brings a lot of power to little kids that may look like me. When they see someone that looks like them that can do this, that is life-changing.”
Paz Herrera’s research has been driven by her desire to see and understand things at the tiniest level. When she was in the second grade, she owned a play light microscope and would look at her hair or the fibers from her shirt.
When going through the three rotations at the start of her doctorate program, Paz Herrera visited a nuclear magnetic resonance lab and an X-ray crystallography lab, both of which would provide her expertise in studying biology at the structural level. However, her third rotation in the Burke lab changed her perception of what the rest of her program could look like.
While the Burke lab doesn’t specialize in structural biology, its focus on viruses and cancers offers an avenue for Paz Herrera to apply her interest.
A recent study Paz Herrera collaborated on with her colleagues from the Burke lab and researchers across campus optimized RNA and DNA molecules, called aptamers, to carry cancer diagnostics or therapeutics like backpacks to receptors on cell surfaces.
Now, Paz Herrera is looking to visualize the interaction of those same molecules with a protein on the cell surface of the Ebola virus for her dissertation.
However, working with the actual Ebola virus requires a biosafety level 4, and the Bond Life Sciences Center only has a biosafety level 2. So, the researchers in the Burke lab had to get creative.
To study the virus interaction in a safe manner, collaborative researcher Alex Bukreyev who works in Galveston, Texas, engineered a lab model that combines a cattle virus with the protein present on the Ebola virus cells. Because the virus only infects cattle, researchers won’t be infected but can still study what they’re most interested in – the glycoprotein on Ebola cells.
Paz Herrera wants to visualize the interaction to understand how that happens. Understanding the interaction between the proteins on the surface of cells and the aptamers can help researchers develop drugs or diagnostics further down the line.
Visualizing it isn’t as easy as looking under a microscope. By themselves, aptamers can’t be seen on the surface of a cell, making it impossible to find where they are or see how they are functioning.
Paz Herrera is working on building a ‘plug-and-play’ modular dart made up of an aptamer, an interjecting body and a gold nanoparticle tail. The gold nanoparticle tail allows her to see where the aptamer is and subsequently visualize the interaction happening.
Using a basic electron microscope available in Mizzou’s Electron Microscope Core, Paz Herrera has begun to infer where the interaction is using staining. However, she is looking forward to using cryo-electron microscopy (CryoEM) that will soon be available. Using CryoEM will allow her to see the aptamer interaction embedded in ice, providing more molecular detail.
The interjecting body in her model joins the gold nanoparticle with a compatible aptamer. This technology can expand far past Ebola and will help researchers study the interaction between aptamers and proteins in other applications.
Paz Herrera didn’t have much research experience as an undergrad. Instead, she did a lot of educational outreach with elementary and high school students.
“I would do cheek cell samples with them. They would swab the inside of their cheek, put it on a slide and stain it and see their own cells,” Paz Herrera said. “They would go crazy.”
As she progressed in her biochemistry career, she learned that there was more to science than viewing cells under a microscope. She saw graduate school as an opportunity to solidify herself as a scientist and also to prepare to teach the next generation of scientists.
“I really want to do what some of the best professors did for me – to inspire a thirst for inquiry and asking questions,” Paz Herrera said. “When a professor uses an acronym in class, they expect you to understand what they’re saying, but learning isn’t like that and shouldn’t be like that. Sometimes we have great experts in the field that have the curse of knowledge and don’t have the best tools to communicate that knowledge.”
Paz Herrera is also minoring in college teaching and has been shadowing Margaret Lange’s classes, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, to prepare herself as a future educator. She also has the ambitious goal of being a guest lecturer in all of the biochemistry undergraduate classes to strengthen her skills and receive feedback.
Her goal is to make learning science more relatable and enjoyable.
“As I progress in my education, although I become focused in my field, I will never forget where I started so that when I teach, I can break the complexity barrier,” Paz Herrera said. “I want to make science appealing, understandable and accessible not only to my future students but to the community and public as well.”
#IAmScience because I have always wanted to understand how the world works and science is a way to do that at the most foundational level.
Certainty hasn’t come easy to Jared Ellingsen, but in retrospect, his path to grad school in biochemistry has involved a long series of pieces falling into place.
Ellingsen began his freshman year as a humanities student at Wheaton College in Illinois, but he fell in love with chemistry after taking a required first-year course.
“According to my adviser I was the first person they had shift from biblical-theological studies to chemistry,” Ellingsen said. “Usually people switch out of science, not into science.”
Ellingsen’s drive to understand why things are or how things work has always been a part of his life.
“I have always wanted to understand how things work and chemistry in particular but science, in general, is the way we can understand the world at the most foundational level,” Ellingsen said. “I’m the kind of person who always wants to know things or understand things. Wikipedia is constantly bookmarked on my phone; I look stuff up all the time. Science is a way to do that but with things people don’t know yet.”
Looking back on the last 10 years of his life, the only unwavering life goal for Jared Ellingsen was to attend Wheaton College in for his undergraduate degree. But everything after has fallen into his lap.
“I had a lot of periods where I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing and then the right door opened up and I fell into the right thing, and, looking back, it all makes sense. It’s been a very clear path but getting there didn’t always feel that way,” said Ellingsen, a fifth-year biochemistry Ph.D. student in Scott Peck’s lab at Bond LSC.
Ellingsen was set on attending Wheaton College from an early age. From the age of four, his aunt promised him that if he attended school close to her, she would cook him dinner and do his laundry. So, for Ellingsen, when it was time to make a college decision, the answer wasn’t difficult.
And his aunt lived up to her word. Every Sunday Ellingsen’s aunt would cook him dinner and let him do laundry at her house.
Finding a school for his graduate degree wasn’t as obvious.
His parents moved to St. Louis while he was in school, so he knew he wanted to attend a university close to them. He applied to 12 schools, but Mizzou wasn’t on his radar until he came for recruitment weekend.
“As soon as I came for my recruitment weekend, I knew that this was where I was going to go. I didn’t need to go on any other visits, it was a perfect fit,” Ellingsen said.
Ellingsen enjoys the collaborative atmosphere and the support he receives from his department and his lab. While he came in knowing he wanted to study biochemistry, the support and mentoring he received during his first year led him to study plants in the Peck lab.
For his Ph.D. research, Ellingsen is studying how plants defend themselves. The Peck lab has identified a mutated variety of the model plant Arabidopsis able to defend itself better than a normal plant, and Ellingsen wants to know what is going inside the plant cells that provide it increased resistance against bacterial infection.
“We can move away from problems or if we need food, we can go get food,” Ellingsen said. “But plants can’t do any of that, they just have to sit there and deal with it in their own way, and I think that’s interesting.”
Within the next year Ellingsen plans to finish his Ph.D. After, he hopes to find a post-doc position in Europe and then eventually stay in academia, whether through research or teaching.
In his spare time, Ellingsen keeps up with his music blog, in which he reviews new songs and follows undiscovered artists to see how they develop.
His love for music began at the age of five when he started playing the piano. He picked up oboe in the fifth grade and slowly added on other instruments to his repertoire such as saxophone, clarinet, English horn and guitar. He kept up with music until his freshman year of college and then found that he didn’t have as much time to devote to it as he wanted.
Ellingsen attributes much of his current success to the discipline and responsibility he picked up through music.
“You have to be so dedicated practicing all the time, and it becomes all-consuming if you really want to be great at it,” Ellingsen said. “Being in grad school is very similar. Grad school is very much what you make of it, and if you’re not determined, putting in the hours and working hard, you’re not going to be making progress or do meaningful things.”
Even after years of being removed from formal practice in his music, Ellingsen still finds peace and relaxation by picking up his oboe or guitar from time to time.