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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.”

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.”

Maddie Willis #IAmScience

Maddie Willis

Maddie Willis, a senior biochemistry major, works in the Burke Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

Setting a routine makes everything easier. However, changes to a set routine often leads to complications.

For Maddie Willis, a senior biochemistry major, that change came in the form of working in different labs and learning their unique styles and areas of emphasis. She started in Lori Eggert’s lab freshman year and switched into Frank Schmidt’s lab for the next two years before changing labs a final time for her last year at Mizzou.

“I got involved in research as a freshman [in Eggert’s lab] through the Honors College Discovery Fellows program,” Willis said. “Then when Professor Schmidt retired, he recommended I look into Donald Burke’s lab.”

In Burke’s lab, she works with ribonucleic acid (RNA) aptamers — artificial RNA molecules that bind a particular target. Aptamers can be used for synthetic biology applications, molecular therapies and to investigate origin of life questions.

Willis works on the latter of the three questions and is characterizing features of an RNA aptamer that can discriminate between the two redox states of Flavin adenine dinucleotide (FAD) — a nucleotide cofactor that appears along with many others in modern metabolism. It has been hypothesized that they are holdovers from an RNA world, when RNA catalyzed prebiotic reactions before being replaced by protein enzymes.

“It’s unprecedented that we found an aptamer that can do that, because it’s such a minor change to the molecule,” Willis said. “I’m doing a reselection, allowing mutations to find out what still binds FAD, to find what’s important.”

Willis’ work is more in touch with human nature than anything else. If the aptamer can change the redox potential of bound FAD, it could potentially enable redox chemistry, which is essential for life.

“To an extent, we’re never going to be able to answer what actually happened at a molecular level billions of years ago,” Willis said. “My project, however, helps humanity to learn about where we came from.”

While the project doesn’t have immediate applications, its implications are significant.

“There are huge advances that come from basic research that no one could’ve anticipated, so it’s important to do,” Willis said.

After she graduates in May, Willis is looking to work in industry for a few years before attending graduate school.

“I had an internship last year, and I learned a lot,” Willis said. “I want to get real-world experience before pursuing more education.”

When she’s not in the lab working with RNA, Willis serves as an undergraduate research ambassador for the university.

“We support the office of undergraduate research by talking to students about research opportunities throughout campus,” Willis said.

It’s no secret that Willis has benefited from her time in the lab, so it makes sense she jumped at the opportunity to help others find their place too. In fact, it’s something that has rounded out her college career.

“Research has been the cornerstone of my experience at Mizzou,” Willis said. “Helping people find that is rewarding.”

Laura Greeley #IAmScience

LauraGreeley.jpg

Laura Greeley, a postdoc, works in the Peck Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I’ve been able to build upon my experiences and explore science in a new, exciting way.”

High school is a weird time for most people because everyone’s trying to figure out where they fit. Laura Greeley was ahead of her time, though.

She uncovered important truths about her passions back then, and the postdoc in Scott Peck’s lab at Bond LSC hasn’t looked back since.

“In high school, I noticed that I had an affinity for chemistry and was inspired by biology, which helped me focus on the path that lead to where I am today,” Greeley said.

While no two days in the lab are the same, Greeley works on a main project centered around mass spectrometry, a technique that is sensitive enough to detect mass changes in molecules as small as a hydrogen atom. This can be used to identify many things, but in Greeley’s case, she wants to identify proteins and molecular changes in them.

“We’re looking at modulations in protein concentrations and possible modifications, such as the adding of a chemical bond,” Greeley said. “These modifications can affect how the protein functions.”

Working on such a small level has bigger applications. How these proteins change when under stressors like drought can tell Greeley and the team of scientists working on this project more about why roots are able to survive, even in the harshest of water conditions.

“We’re still at the exploratory point,” Greeley said. “We’re hoping to see changes in certain similarly functioning proteins that would indicate adaptive behavior.”

Ideally, Greeley would like to see the team uncover how corn root continue growing under harsh drought conditions. This would be an important stepping stone to engineering better crops to help prevent yield losses and, therefore, increase the food supply.

Teaching has also shared the stage with Greeley’s research. Thanks to the guidance of Peck, she’s working toward standing in front of students in the classroom.

“I expressed an interest in being an undergraduate professor one day, and he offered for me to lecture in one of his courses to see if I enjoy it,” Greeley said. “Incorporating that to my postdoc experience in the near future will help me to develop my skillsets for my career.”

Peck’s mentorship has helped Greeley focus her scientific zeal in the classroom and the lab.

“When things go wrong, he’s very supportive about trying to figure out what happened and how to fix it,” Greeley said. “He’s been pushing for more goal-oriented thinking lately, which is great for me.”

After finishing her postdoc, Greeley hopes to keep discovering more answers to the questions she has in the world of science.

“Thus far, each stage of my career has been even better than the last,” Greeley said. “I’m looking forward to that trend continuing.”

Tyler McCubbin #IAmScience

TylerMcCubbin.jpg

Tyler McCubbin, a Ph.D. candidate, collaborates with the Peck Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I am passionate about solving real world problems with creative solutions.”

A lot of people get signs as a guide for the direction they’re supposed to take in life. Tyler McCubbin’s sign was more literal.

“There was a giant billboard alongside a county road and it said ‘Pray for Rain,’ and it’s probably still there,” McCubbin said. “Seeing that at the height of the drought was inspiring. It made me question why anyone studies anything other than drought responses.”

Now as a second year Ph.D. student collaborating with Scott Peck’s lab in Bond LSC, McCubbin studies drought’s impact on the crown roots of corn, which grow from the stem.

“We’re interested in what’s unique about those and why they can keep growing while everything else stops,” McCubbin said. “I’m able to make crown roots grow in a very dry environment. Then I dissect them into different regions and see which genes are turned on and off in response to drought.”

By using a strategically designed apparatus, McCubbin can control the soil environment the corn grows in and better understand why crown roots continue to grow.

“It took a lot of time to come up with the apparatus,” McCubbin said. “We’ve spent about a year optimizing it so that it’s repeatable and accurate.”

Doing that has streamlined his research and given him the opportunity to find results that can be applied to other aspects of the grant.

While the effort is collaborative between a number of labs, McCubbin is impressed by how centralized it is.

“The project is funded by the National Science Foundation,” McCubbin said. “There are six labs working on this project all at Mizzou, which makes this unique.”

And when he’s not working on the mechanisms that make corn roots able to survive drought, McCubbin spends as much time as possible outdoors.

“I am passionate about wildlife conservation and have participated in wetland ecosystem restoration efforts for most of my adult life,” McCubbin said. “If I’m not in the lab, I’m outside because it’s where I feel most at home.”

Chris Zachary #IAmScience

Chris Zachary.jpg

Chris Zachary, a junior chemistry major, stands near his lab station in the Mendoza Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because the lessons I learn through research will help me to one day become an astronaut.”

Asking kids what they want to be when they grow up usually leads to a variety of answers: doctor, lawyer, president, astronaut. A few years down the line, though, most of those answers change.

Chris Zachary, a junior chemistry major, is the exception. He never outgrew the dream of being an astronaut and is involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with going to space in mind.

“There isn’t a clear path to becoming an astronaut, but I was advised to stay in STEM,” Zachary said.

While his ultimate goal requires some extreme preparation and travel, Zachary keeps himself involved to make that dream a reality. Right now, he works in the Mendoza lab at Bond LSC, which he found through his involvement with Mizzou’s Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD).

“I knew I was interested in science and that I wanted to do something with chemistry,” Zachary said. “During an IMSD meeting, Mendoza came in and talked about what his lab does. I was interested, so I pursued it.”

The opportunity to do something a bit outside of the norm was appealing to Zachary because it helps to diversify his experience as a researcher and a student.

With two years under his belt in the Mendoza lab, Zachary now works to uncover some weighty issues in plant cells.

“Our lab focuses on heavy metal transporters, specifically iron,” Zachary said. “One of the most common forms of malnutrition around the world is anemia, and one of the best ways to fight it is to make more nutritious crops.”

That process is called bio fortification, and it allows plants to be more efficient at absorbing nutrients, which will help to alleviate world hunger.

When he’s not working to feed the world, Zachary’s dreams of blasting off to Mars consume him.

“There’s a lot that goes into being an astronaut, like a height requirement and physical tests, which is pretty daunting,” Zachary said. “In the end, though, it’ll be worth it.”

However, in the meantime he wants to maximize his experiences at Mizzou.

“[When choosing a lab] I didn’t want to close myself off,” Zachary said. “Working here helps me because instead of a narrow field, I chose the broader path. I can say I’m a chemistry major who worked in a plant sciences lab, which is huge.”

 

Sarah Gebkin #IAmScience

SarahGebken.jpg

Sarah Gebken, a junior biological engineering major, works in the Pires Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I bring a unique perspective to the world of research.”

They say only an engineer could figure out their way around the engineering building at Mizzou. Now in her junior year, Sarah Gebken boasts the ability to do just that.

Her unique perspective as a biological engineering major translates to her work in Chris Pires’ lab in Bond LSC, too. As both an engineer and a scientist, Gebken is prepared to contribute new ideas when trying to find solutions to complicated issues.

“Engineering classes are geared toward problem-solving, so I’m able to pinpoint where we’re going to have issues,” Gebken said. “It gives me a different view on research.”

The lab focuses on trying to get Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) to work in Brassica oleracea — a species of plants that includes cabbage, cauliflower and kale. Doing so has the potential to transform the farming industry.

“The main goal of our research is to save farmers space and time,” Gebken said.

CRISPR acts like scissors to DNA, which helps Gebken and her lab mates gain valuable understanding of the genes.

“CRISPR codes for a protein that clamps onto the DNA and makes a cut,” Gebken said. “We’re relying on that cut to knock out a gene to see what the gene actually does.”

Although Gebken has been trying to find a solution to the same question since she joined the lab as a freshman, she still finds the research satisfying.

Working with the plasmids is the next piece of the puzzle that the lab is aiming to complete.

“We’re making progress, which is exciting,” Gebken said. “We just ordered our plasmids yesterday.”

Once they figure that out, it’ll allow them to use that understanding to make better plants for the world moving forward.

After she finishes her undergraduate degree next year, Gebken plans to pursue a master’s degree and ultimately earn a Ph.D.

“I want to go on and be an academic professor, which would be a lot of research,” Gebken said. “Even if I went into industry, I’d want to do some kind of research.”

For Gebken, the quizzical nature of science serves as motivation to keep going.

“In a research setting, everything is a question,” Gebken said. “And you don’t have answers to a lot of them.”

Duolin Wang #IAmScience

Duolin Wang

Duolin Wang, a researcher in the Dong Xu lab in Bond LSC, works in bioinformatics. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I want to explore the beauty of biological sequences through computational methods.”

Bioinformatics is a melting pot in the world of science. As a study of analyzing complex data, it’s not a field for everyone, but its applications are vast.

Duolin Wang, a researcher in the Dong Xu Lab at Bond LSC, isn’t intimidated by the complexities her field presents. She came to America from China to conduct research for Xu’s lab while she simultaneously works on her thesis to earn her Ph.D. from Jilin University in China.

“The reason I came to American is because the education is great,” Wang said. “It provides me a very good opportunity to study and do research.”

Wang and her lab practice deep learning, which is a state-of-the-art approach to machine learning.

“There has been a growing interest in applying deep learning methods to understanding the function of biological sequences directly from sequence,” Wang said. “It allows computational models composed of multiple processing layers to learn representations of data with multiple levels of abstraction.”

Essentially, deep learning is a way to better understand the complex data that the bioinformatics field covers. For instance, it turns terabytes of information on a sequence to help researchers predict how best to improve its effectiveness.

She didn’t just stumble into her research position, though. Her supervisor at her university in China had collaborated with Xu in the past. When Xu traveled overseas, Wang was able to meet him in person.

“I showed my interest in his research, and I asked him if I could come to the United States to continue my research,” Wang said.

The rest is history. In the three years she’s been at Mizzou, Wang has been able to work on a number of projects in her field. That’s largely thanks to Xu’s flexibility with the topics she focuses on.

“I have freedom to choose what I want to study,” Wang said. “As a scientist, I can explore what I’m really interested in. Professor Xu didn’t make any barriers to my research field; I can show him my interests and he can see whether it’s a good topic and if I can explore it.”

Wang has even written a few papers, including one for Monsanto thanks to the help of Juexin Wang who also works in the Xu lab. That experience has helped her to prepare for a future in research writing proposals.

It’s not all about the work, though.

“The most valuable thing I got from this lab is the people,” Wang said. “They’re excellent scientists, and I’ve learned a lot from them.”

Wang is on track to finish her Ph.D. this summer, but she’d like to continue what she’s been doing at Bond LSC.

“I might do a postdoc here after I earn my degree,” Wang said. “I want to continue my research here.”

Eric Fedosejevs #IAmScience

Eric Fedosejevs

Eric Fedosejevs, a postdoc, stands in front of his lab station in the Thelen Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I want to discover how plants decide what to store in their seeds.”

The family garden doesn’t typically turn into a life-long journey of studying plants. But when Eric Fedosejevs went to college, the native Canadian found that plants naturally made sense when deciding what to do with his life.

“Growing up, we always had a big garden with a lot of vegetables,” Fedosejevs said. “And with the ever-present need to increase food supply and address world hunger, combined with the innovation in plant-based technologies, there seemed like a lot of potential in plant biology.”

As a postdoc in Jay Thelen’s lab in Bond LSC, Fedosejevs has gone from longtime student to full-time researcher.

“A major focus of the Thelen lab is to look at oil biosynthesis in developing seeds,” Fedosejevs said.

Specifically, Fedosejevs works with soybean, which is a key crop in the United States because it has such a high protein content. But oil production suffers because of the high protein and his focus is looking at altering that part of the seed.

“The oil content of soybean is not as high as most oil seeds,” Fedosejevs said. “The goal of my project is to boost that content without causing any significant decrease to the valuable protein.”

In his role as a postdoc, Fedosejevs has the freedom to do what he loves with the guidance of an established researcher in Thelen.

“This experience has been great,” Fedosejevs said. “Jay gives a lot of research freedom to his postdocs, so I’ve been able to bring many of my own ideas into my project. I appreciate that a lot.”

When he’s not in the lab working on soybeans, Fedosejevs can be found reading about anything that piques his interest.

“I can spend a whole day reading about a topic I know nothing about,” Fedosejevs said.

It is that dedication to learning that landed him in academia, and it’s also what guided him to a career as a researcher. Fedosejevs, however, believes that genuine curiosity is the foundation for being successful in science.

“If you have that mindset and you find a research area you’re also passionate about, a postdoc is very much something to look forward to,” Fedosejevs said.

He’s able to focus all of his energy on his work, and he loves it.

“I’m really happy coming to work and doing research every day.” Fedosejevs said. “I’m going to keep doing that for as long as I can.”

Patrick Nittler #IAmScience

Patrick Nittler

Patrick Nittler, a Ph.D. candidate in the Division of Biological Sciences at MU, stands near his lab station in the Liscum Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I push through failures knowing that eventually something will work out.”

Breaking things apart and putting them back together has been engrained in Patrick Nittler’s life for as long as he can remember. Growing up, Nittler served as his dad’s sidekick as he salvaged parts of a broken computer to boost performance in their new one. Moments like those were bonding experiences that encouraged the innate curiosity of the now second year molecular plant biology Ph.D. candidate.

Although plants and your run of the mill computer have little in common, Nittler was inspired to follow his interest in how things work.

“I’m a curious person in general, so once I started working with plants I realized it’s something I’m really interested in,” Nittler said.

As part of Mannie Liscum’s lab in the Bond Life Sciences Center, Nittler works on a protein called Nonphototropic Hypocotyl 3 (NPH3) that belongs to a 33-gene member family. This protein is part of the complicated way plants respond to light and the signals that make them grow toward or away from sunlight.

“Right after the photoreceptor in Arabidopsis thaliana receives blue light, it cues a domino effect,” Nittler said. “The protein I study is the next step, and I’m working on characterizing its structure.”

Doing so could help Nittler and his lab to learn more about the rest of the gene family. It could also contribute to his main area of expertise: phototropism, which is how plants perceive and respond to light sources. This can increase the efficiency of photosynthesis by orienting the leaves of the plant toward sunlight.

“They all seemingly do different things, so I’m trying to figure out what influences phototropism,” Nittler said. “We only know what happens after mutating six of the 33, so we’re working to better understand them. Some of them might not have functions, though.”

Nittler, however, directs his attention to just part of the family.

“I work with the three most closely related,” Nittler said. “One of those has a known function and the other two don’t.”

Meaning that two of the three are recognized as genes, but what happens when you mutate them is uncertain. While figuring out what mutations cause is important, Nittler has his attention elsewhere.

In order to better understand the genes, Nittler is attempting to learn the 3D structures of the protein’s middle section.

“We’ve had issues experimentally getting it to work,” Nittler said. “The main thing I want to find out from the 3D structure is why Nonphototropic Hypocotyl 3 is involved in phototropism while its close gene family members aren’t.”

Even though it hasn’t worked out just yet, Nittler continues to try new things in hopes of finding the solution.

“I like the challenge,” Nittler said. “Science doesn’t work a lot of the time, but when it does it’s really exciting.”