Vaccines were the light at the end of the tunnel throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but virus mutations threaten to extinguish hope of a quick end to the pandemic. Kamlendra Singh turns towards antivirals as the next step.
“There will be a time we will find an antiviral which will be very difficult for the virus to mutate [and avoid],” Singh said, “That’s what we are after.”
The Singh lab studied COVID-19 antiviral compounds that prevent binding between the virus and host cells with help from Siddappa Byrareddy, professor and vice-chair of research in the Department of Pharmacology Experimental Neuroscience at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC). The first COVID-19 antiviral compound Singh’s team discovered during their in a preliminary study conducted in mouse models, has been filed for a patent while they continue to search for the antivirals that target different proteins of the virus. These compounds would prevent the virus from entering cells even after exposure to the virus.
The antiviral compound disrupts the interaction between the ACE2 receptor on the surface of host cells and the spike protein on the virus so the virus cannot infect cells. ACE2 acts as a doorway into the cell where COVID-19 binds, enters and takes over the cell. Once inside, the virus hijacks the cell and uses it to create more virus. Additionally, the virus releases its genome into the host cells, activating cell defense mechanisms which can be more dangerous than the infection itself.
While vaccines prepare the immune system to fight off COVID-19, Singh’s antivirals simply block this doorway.
“The very first thing was to find the compound that can inhibit viral entry because it is the first step of the infection,” Singh said. “If you can block the very first step then you can block everything else.”
Vaccines act as a practice round for the body where the immune response learns which antibodies are effective against the virus. But when the virus mutates, antibodies built up from vaccination or prior infection may be less effective against the mutated virus.
The antiviral compounds discovered by Singh and his team do not have this problem since they bind to the host cell’s receptors where few mutations occur. Additionally, the compounds can change their shape in response to those mutations that may occur.
“We call it ‘wiggling and jiggling,’” Singh said. “The compound has the capability to change it’s shape conformation.”
This ability to change shape is not unique to COVID-19 antivirals. Drawing on previous experience working on HIV antivirals, Singh explains that shape changing properties are common in molecules with single bonds between their component atoms.
“If you have a single bond somewhere, then they can change or they can reorient and bind someplace,” Singh said.
Singh believes antivirals may be the key to fighting COVID-19 even with emerging mutants. While vaccines mitigated COVID-19 rates and hospitalizations, they also might have played a role in the creation of new mutants.
“It’s probably too early to say, but it looks like these variants are probably evolving under the pressure of antibodies,” Singh said. “Those antibodies may have been induced by either direct infusions giving the antibodies [to patients], or they may have been induced by other vaccines or by previous infection.”
While viruses also mutate under the pressure of antivirals, Singh hopes to find an antiviral that is difficult for the virus to avoid through mutation.
“We have been working on developing a better compound using the compounds we discovered, and we have found one more compound that has at least 10 times better efficacy against [SARS-Cov-2],” Singh said.
Kamlendra Singh is a research assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology and assistant director of the Molecular Interactions Core at Bond LSC. Singh wished to express his sincere gratitude to Prof. Byrareddy (University of Nebraska Medical School). Without their collaboration, the discovery of the antiviral compounds would not be possible. Singh is also thankful to two students – Saathvik Kannan (a Hickman High School student) and Austin (a Mizzou undergrad). Without the help of these two talented young scientists, the research would not have been so successful. Finally, Singh mentioned that the support from the Bond Life Sciences Center has been extremely valuable in his research.
New drug treatments take time and money to develop, especially with diseases as complicated as cancer.
Developing a new drug to help cancer patients can take up to fifteen years and can cost roughly $1.6 billion, according to a paper published in the journal Cancers.
With this in mind, researchers at the University of Missouri aim to capitalize on drugs that already exist. Using advanced computing, they are turning to FDA-approved drugs to repurpose, or reposition, for future cancer treatments.
“The motivation for computational drug repositioning is to really cut down the cost and the time to develop new drugs,” said Chi-Ren Shyu, Director of the Institute for Data Science and Informatics and Shumaker Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at the University of Missouri.
Shyu and his collaborators focused their study on the treatment of a type of breast cancer with the lowest survival rate. Triple-negative breast cancer patients lack the receptors estrogen, progesterone, and human epidermal growth factor. Without these receptors, chemotherapy is the only remaining option for treatment and does not produce long remission periods for most patients.
About 80% of those with triple-negative breast cancer do not respond to treatment.
Researchers first used AI methods to discover meaningful cohorts of triple-negative breast cancer patients, looking for genetic similarities and prioritizing subgroups based on potentials to respond to selected drugs. They found five distinct groups based on their genes and physical features. These features are the physical qualities that set the patients apart, such as age, race, or cancer stage.
Zainab Al-Taie, the primary researcher and currently a postdoc at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, also analyzed the genetic makeup of each patient and how each drug would interact with their specific gene expression.
“She [Zainab] came up with a really innovative way of stratifying the patients in which she combined clinical features as well as the molecular features of the tumor sample,” said co-author and biochemistry professor Mark Hannink.
Now that scientists had more targeted groups, they turned to precision medicine to select drugs that treat diseases other than breast cancer.
Using algorithms, each group was cross-referenced to existing drugs, finding the best possible new drugs. Each group was then given a drug that would best target the cancer cells based on their similar features.
“Especially for complicated diseases like cancer, the patients respond differently to treatment,” said Al-Taie. “There is no one treatment that can cure all the patients, so they always have different responses to their treatment.”
For example, the most common treatment for cancer patients is chemotherapy. However, many patients receive more negative than positive impacts from chemotherapy as not all patients will react the same because of genetic and other differences, explains Al-Taie.
“The problem in the health care system is that it is more disease-oriented with treatments. Since people have the disease, they focus on the disease and forget about the people,” Al-Taie said. “We cannot treat all of them the same.”
From this research, drugs that cause ferroptosis — cell death due to excessive accumulation of iron — was found to have potential for four of five of the groups.
In the subgroups, researchers found “more than one drug within the top five drugs that play a role in inducing ferroptosis,” according to this research. These results suggest that using drugs that induce ferroptosis may be, “a novel therapeutic route and may be advantageous for these patients.” However, there were no ferroptosis-inducing drugs recommended for patients under 50 years old. Instead, treatment should focus on drugs with an antioxidative effect on cancer cells.
“This whole idea of drug repurposing has gotten a lot of attention because we have really helped a lot of drugs now that have been developed. They’re developed for one disease, let’s say, but her [Zainab] results really suggest they can be repurposed,” Hannink said.
Both Al-Taie and Dr.Shyu hope other medical practitioners will take the research findings in their clinical trials research and use them for further treatments when it comes to triple-negative patients.
“Instead of trying with a limited hypothesis or trying with a small cluster of patients, I hope the breast cancer research community will utilize these findings to really streamline their clinical trials for triple-negative patients,” Dr. Shyu said.
Read more about this work in the paper “Drug Repositioning and Subgroup Discovery for Precision Medicine Implementation in Triple-Negative Breast Cancer” published in September 2021 in the journal Cancers.
Zainab Al-Taie is a postdoc at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Chi-Ren Shyu is the Director of the Institute for Data Science and Informatics and Shumaker Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at the University of Missouri. Mark Hannink is a professor of biochemistry and a Bond Life Sciences Center principal investigator.
It takes a lot to move a discovery from lab bench to an application that can provide therapeutic benefits to those suffering from disease.
Bond LSC’s Chris Lorson is making moves to bridge that gap with the start of Shift Pharmaceuticals. With its formation in March 2017, Lorson adds co-founder and Chief Science Officer of the company to his list of titles that include Bond LSC investigator, professor of veterinary pathobiology and associate dean for research and graduate studies.
Shift Pharmaceuticals builds off of years of progress the Lorson Lab has made in understanding spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), which is the leading genetic cause of infant deaths. The disease causes neurons to die, leading to muscle failure, including those that affect walking, arm movement, and respiratory function. While SMA is technically a rare disease, it is remarkably common, affecting nearly 1/10,000 births.
“It’s a devastating disease for patients and families; while the primary defect in is nerves, this leads to problems in muscles, bones, and other vital systems,” Lorson said. “Historically, the majority of kids who develop SMA do not survive beyond 3-5 years.”
Lorson knew his research had potential for drug development, and MU’s Office of Technology Management & Industry Relations (OTMIR) pursued patent protection for the technology. This process helps safeguard the innovations resulting from the research and allows MU to better attract commercial interest to develop and market medical treatments originating from the technology. But it took a partnership with co-founder Steve O’Connor to get the ball rolling. O’Connor is MU’s Entrepreneur in Residence and has significant experience in starting drug development businesses and now serves as CEO of Shift.
“I never knew how to start a company,” Lorson said. “I would argue most academics don’t – this isn’t part of our traditional training. I sat around not knowing what to do, realizing I had this thing that could do a lot, but the practical steps of setting up a biotech start-up were beyond me.”
“Steve thought this technology sounded really cool, so in late March he submitted paperwork and by the end of March we were a company. Shift’s first grant was submitted 3 days later.”
The goal of Shift Pharmaceuticals is to move their lead compound into the clinic for SMA.
“When you look at the disease, it’s not just one cell type and not just one clinical type of patient,” Lorson said. “It really is a disease that is complex and the idea is to bring more options to the fight.”
With the start of any new business, money is always a necessity. Funding from the advocacy group CURE SMA provided the initial funding for the discovery of this compound, while several other foundations including FightSMA, the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation, and Muscular Dystrophy Association have further contributed to the pre-clinical development. MU’s OTMIR negotiated an option agreement with Shift, giving them the exclusive rights to the technology, which helped them obtain a recent $2.73 million grant from the Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP). This will move the company toward the first phase of investigating a new drug.
The root of SMA
Lorson has spent most of his scientific career chasing the underlying causes of SMA.
That search focused in on a few key genes in those suffering from the disease. Two genes — named survival motor neuron-1 and -2 (SMN1 and SMN2, respectively) — are central to SMA development. In patients, SMN1 is mutated and doesn’t process enough of a key protein (SMN) that helps neurons function. While SMN2 acts as a backup gene for this function, a miniscule change in the SMN2 gene causes it to make less SMN protein than required by the body.
In 2016, the Lorson Lab at Bond LSC produced a compound that increases the lifespan of SMA mice . They targeted the back-up gene, SMN2, to produce more functional protein and discovered an increase of protein causing a significant lifespan extension in treated mice. This discovery showed promise for creating a cure for those with SMA.
Shift Pharmaceuticals will be working on developing a drug that builds off Lorson’s work and targets all forms of SMA.
Shift’s first two employees, Mizzou alumnus Paul Morcos and UMKC alumnae Diane Beatty, will help move toward that goal. With Morcos in research and development and Beatty negotiating regulatory affairs, the company hopes to move the drug toward FDA approval.
Thanks to the recent Department of Defense grant, the next step looks to testing in larger animals and at things Lorson did not consider before.
“The experiments we will be doing are not academic in nature, rather, they are focused on the singular goal of preparing our lead compound for an FDA submission. From a traditional academic lab perspective, these might sound rather boring,” Lorson said. “All of these things are not things you do in an academic setting, but that is exactly the point. This is drug development, not the quest for another paper.”
Within the Business Incubator, MU will provide space for the company as well for their research. This sort of partnership is just another part that may one day help translate vital basic research into future treatment.
“Almost everybody has the possibility of doing something that is translational, it is just envisioning it in a different way,” Lorson said.
Change is hard. Especially when you’re comparing weather, like Maria Boftsi, a second year Ph.D. student in the Pintel Lab at Bond LSC, did.
From the sunny skies of a small town in Northern Greece, where she’s originally from, to the contrastingly harsh winter of mid-Missouri, Boftsi was in for a lot of change when she came to Mizzou.
“The summer after my third year of undergraduate I came to work in the Sarafianos Lab. Then I went back to Greece to finish my bachelor’s degree,” Boftsi said. “When he moved to a different university, I joined the Pintel Lab about six months ago.”
In the Pintel lab, Boftsi studies parvovirus interactions with the host genome. This virus is among the smallest in terms of DNA.
“We study the parvovirus Minute Virus of mice, or MVM,” Boftsi said. “MVM infection leads to a sustained DNA damage response in cells, which the virus exploits to enhance its replication.”
The replication process is anything but simple. Boftsi uses previous work to better understand this aspect of the virus life cycle.
“Recent studies in our lab have shown that the virus establishes replication centers at specific sites of the cellular genome,” Boftsi said. “I’m trying to investigate the role of viral proteins on virus-host interactions.”
Once the lab does that, they’ll be able to apply what they’ve learned to future projects.
“Parvoviruses are important pathogens and cause infections in many animal species,” Boftsi said. “Our work can provide important insights into virus-host cell interactions in general.”
That kind of impact is what allowed Boftsi’s original interest in science to grow.
“I first got into research because of a biology class I had in high school,” Boftsi said. “Then I realized how amazing it is to study something closely and learn the details.”
And the curiosity she’s developed is a driving factor in her decision to keep her education going.
“I want to do a postdoc,” Boftsi said. “I really want to continue research.”
Even though being thousands of miles away from home is hard, Boftsi has grown from the experience, and she’s grateful for the opportunities she’s had thus far.
“It’s been great. I really like it here,” Boftsi said. “The environment is amazing, and the people are so friendly and helpful.”
“#IAmScience because I like to discover. The excitement of uncovering things that could have an impact on millions of lives is fascinating.”
Vinit Shanbhag isn’t your typical student. His extensive background both overseas in India and at the Florida Institute of Technology serve to prove just that and prepared him for his next adventure at Mizzou.
“When I came here for the on-campus interviews, the department was impressive,” said Shanbhag, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in biochemistry. “The excellent infrastructure, paradigm-shifting research and challenging educational environment influenced my decision to attend MU.”
Shanbhag intentionally joined the lab of Michael Petris at Bond LSC to further his experience.
“I was particularly interested in joining the Petris lab due to my immense interest in cancer research,” Shanbhag said. “That interest has now evolved into an aspiration to pursue a career in the field.”
There he studies how an essential dietary nutrient copper is required for the process of tumor formation and metastasis. In a specific study he has deleted a copper-transporting gene (ATP7a) in cancer cells and demonstrated a defect in their ability to grow into larger tumors and spread to other organs in animals.
“By understanding the mechanisms that regulate key processes in cells, one can distinguish between the normal and diseased,” Shanbhag said. “Uncovering these differences at the molecular level is key to the development of novel clinical interventions.”
Shanbhag’s work has been recognized as he was invited to present his research at the Gordon Research Seminar in Vermont earlier this year. While there, he shared the work he’s been doing in his lab and gave a presentation, in addition to showcasing a poster detailing his work.
“People were impressed,” Shanbhag said. “After my talk people came up and asked me questions. Our observations are very interesting and the goal is to develop a drug that could potentially block the function of ATP7A and inhibit cancer progression. The people I spoke with encouraged us to keep going.”
Although he’s presented at departmental seminars, this recognition stands out as a great experience for Shanbhag.
“This was my first invited talk,” Shanbhag said. “I applied for it and got the news of my invite pretty quickly, so I was excited.”
The hope is that Shanbhag’s research will serve as the premise for further development in understanding and eventually eliminating cancer.
“Ultimately, I hope to discover new ways to kill cancer cells and provide cost-effective treatment options for cancer patients,” Shanbhag said.
“#IAmScience because I want to focus my research on problems that exist in agriculture in undeveloped and third world countries.”
Sterling Evans’ mind wasn’t focused on research when he started college, but that would soon change.
The sophomore plant sciences major uncovered his interest thanks to Freshman Research in Plant Sciences (FRIPS) — a program dedicated to introducing research to freshman students from plant-related degree programs.
“I was interested in plant sciences-related fields when I started here, but I had no intention of getting involved in undergraduate research,” Evans said. “Being selected for FRIPS was instrumental in getting me involved with research.”
Along with a handful of students selected for FRIPS each year, Evans got to interact with various professors and mentors around campus on a weekly basis. Because of that exposure, Evans found a place in the lab of Bond Life Sciences Center’s Gary Stacey.
After a year working in Stacey’s lab, Evans just joined a new project that aims to improve the nutritional value of soybeans.
“They’re used as a main source of protein for a lot of countries, so improving their nutritional content would have a huge impact,” Evans said.
The team is applies CRISPR, a gene-editing tool, to model plants called Arabidopsis as a first step.
“We are working on Arabidopsis right now as a proof of concept, because it can be done in a relatively short period of time, before investing as much as a two additional years in soybeans,” Evans said.
While he only spends 15 hours in the lab each week, Evans noticed the lab’s impact on his approach to academics in other ways.
“Research gives me more motivation to think about how to apply information I’ve learned in class to work in the lab,” Evans said. “It has made me more analytical in classes because I have more of a desire to understand things.”
Evans plans to earn a Ph.D. in a plant sciences field and wants to continue research in his career. He’s most interested in helping ensure small communities throughout the world have enough to eat, and he hopes to contribute by studying orphan crops.
“I think they’re cool because they’re really important to small people groups. No one studies them because they aren’t a big deal in the United States or other countries,” Evans said. “If we work on them we won’t have a huge impact on hundreds of millions of people, but we will have a huge impact on small communities.”
That impact all started in a lab. Had he not stepped out of his comfort zone he might never have discovered this path, and he highly encourages other students to give research a chance.
“There are labs for almost everything and there’s an area for everyone,” Evans said. “I didn’t know I wanted to do research until I did it.”
How zebrafish gained its popularity as a model organism
By Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC
The core of many modern discoveries in developmental biology is swimming in a tank.
These are zebrafish that serve as the lab rats for Anand Chandrasekhar’s research.
Dozens of tanks containing thousands of swimming fish fill the lab in the basement of the Bond Life Sciences Center. There are baby fish, striped fish and clear fish, many genetically modified for experimental reasons, and they are studied from fertilized embryo to adolescence.
Chandrasekhar’s lab uses zebrafish to study migrating motor neurons in the brainstem that control muscle movement in the face and jaw.
Multiple types of neurons positioned precisely throughout the brain connect together to form networks. Those networks give the brain its ability to function.
“For us, it is important to study how these networks form because the brain is what makes us human,” said the Bond Life Sciences Center researcher.
During development, neurons respond to signals that enable them to move to different locations and form networks, Chandrasekhar explained. If the neurons don’t migrate properly to specific locations then the brain can’t function properly.
It is a domino effect. If the brain stem motor neurons don’t migrate correctly then the corresponding neural networks don’t form correctly and then the fish are not able to eat well.
Chandrasekhar’s lab is captivated by this migration. Different neurons move different ways and are set into motion by different signals. What are the signals to tell the neurons to stop or to go? Do these signals vary based on neuron type and species?
The lab also seeks to understand the repercussions of deficient migration using genetically modified fish.
Cell migration doesn’t just occur in the brain or with nerve cells. Cells also need to move in particular ways to form the heart and to fight infections.
A Model Swimmer
The zebrafish has long joined traditional lab rats and mice as scientists’ choice as an ideal test subject.
“When I first started out I wasn’t entirely sure I could do that (work with zebrafish), because how am I expected to handle something in water, moving around and be able to use it to really do experiments?” Chandrasekhar said. “But once you see how you handle fish, how you get them together, it just becomes one more thing that you do and then it makes you wonder how people work with mice.”
Like other model organisms, zebrafish share many genetic similarities with humans. These similarities mean researchers can investigate cancer, heart disease, muscle and tissue disorders in humans by testing and studying fish.
Mice and rats also share a large portion of DNA with humans, but the zebrafish’s unique characteristics enable experiments and observations to be cheap, efficient and fast.
One of those unique traits is a rapid development rate. This allows researchers to study important developmental stages in a single week.
“They’re incredibly efficient in terms of, I can set them up and they’ll be ready tomorrow morning,” said Ph.D. student Devynn Hummel.
The fact that embryo development in mice occurs inside their mother also makes observing early stages of development hard. Zebrafish embryos, on the other hand, grow independently, outside the mother.
The young zebrafish’s transparency also helps researchers track cells within its body.
Hummel explained that by using fluorescently tagged molecules we are able to zero in on anything from neurons to changes in calcium concentrations, allowing fish to be used in a wide range of different studies.
“We’ve sort of engineered them to allow us to look at different tissues,” Hummel explained. “It really is remarkable the details in imaging zebrafish and what you can see. It’s truly extraordinary.”
Scientists throughout the world are catching on to the advantages of the fish.
Chandrasekhar said there are significantly more zebrafish labs throughout the world than there were 20 years ago.
Despite its advantages, the zebrafish will not completely replace mice as a lab tool.
Chandrasekhar explained there are still certain experiments where mice are more advantageous. The same area of research can be explored using zebrafish, mice or even fruit flies, but the specific questions you ask change based on the tools available.
While Chandrasekhar’s lab concentrates on neurons, understanding how the migration occurs can be applied in a different context because of shared cellular mechanisms.
“Some of these molecules are just tools that different types of cells can use in different ways to accomplish different functions,” he said. “You can study a steering wheel in a car and know that it’s allowing the wheels to turn and the same steering wheel in a truck is allowing the wheels to turn in a truck, but maybe at a different time and a different way.”
Members of Chandrasekhar’ lab already experienced a broader implication of their research when a gene they studied with a role in neuron migration provided insight on Spina bifida, a failure of the fetal spinal cord to close completely.
“We all hope the problem we study has a broader impact on human biology so there’s always a quest to dig deeper and learn something new,” Chandrasekhar said.
The lab is hoping one day soon this fishy tool will help shed even more light on the mechanisms maintaining human health. For now, the researchers and their fish will just keep swimming.
With more than 2,000 fish, the lab has no plans on slowing down.
Anand Chandrasekhar is a Biological Sciences professor at the University of Missouri. He uses mice and zebrafish to study the mechanisms involved with the development of the nervous system. His lab in Bond LSC uses cell biological and genetic methods to understand these mechanisms. He received his Ph.D. in biology from the University of Iowa.
“#IAmScience because research allows me to challenge my understanding of the world around me and strive toward figuring out the unknown.”
Paul Caldo isn’t your typical undergraduate student. As a junior, Caldo is double majoring in Biology and Psychology, which gives him a unique perspective on science as a whole.
It is in the overlap between his majors, however, that most interests him.
“I am fascinated with development in both psychology and biology because the early stages of life lay the foundation for who and what you will become,” he said. “I have an appreciation for all spheres of academia, and it is becoming more evident to me that an interdisciplinary approach to research will lead to more and more breakthroughs in science.”
As a member of both Dr. Cheryl Rosenfeld’s biology lab in Bond LSC and Dr. Ashley Groh’s psychology lab in Noyes Hall, Caldo gets the best of both worlds while studying the fields he loves. In Rosenfeld’s lab, he’s currently analyzing how endocrine disruptors – which are found in everyday products like sunscreen – impact the development of reproductive organs in female mice.
“By understanding the underlying mechanisms that drive this interaction, our goal is to potentially reverse some of the harmful effects that result from heavy exposure to endocrine disruptors,” Caldo said.
His efforts have not gone unnoticed. Caldo was selected to join an ASH Scholars undergraduate team mentored by Dr. Grohl and collaborator Dr. Amanda Rose. The ASH Scholars program, which provides a $2000 scholarship, is sponsored by the Honors College and the Office of Undergraduate Research. He also received a $200 travel grant that will allow him to present his findings at the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease Conference in Detroit later this month.
“I’m really excited about the travel grant to Detroit,” Caldo said. “It will be my first time attending a national-level conference. I hope to benefit from presenting my work as well as learning from many great scientists from across the country. I think it will be a really enriching experience, and I hope to take away a lot from it.”
After graduation, Caldo hopes to attend graduate school to study developmental psychology using an interdisciplinary bio-behavioral approach to answer research questions. Ultimately, his plan is to earn a PhD in developmental psychology. Until then, though, he’s enjoying his time at Bond LSC learning as much as possible.
“The ambiance is great – working closely with some of the best researchers on campus is an amazing feeling,” Caldo said.
Scientific success largely hinges on research results, and four recent promotions at Bond Life Sciences Center celebrate that achievement.
Cheryl Rosenfeld, D Cornelison and Melissa Mitchum of Bond Life Sciences Center were promoted to full professor as of September 1, while Laurie Erb received a promotion as a non-tenure-track research professor. They are the first female full professors in Bond LSC’s 13-year history.
University of Missouri’s Assistant Vice Chancellor of the Division of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity, Noor Azizan-Gardner, said the promotions made her optimistic.
“Three women all going up to full professor – it’s phenomenal,” she said. “And the fact that they all have labs in Bond LSC makes me deliriously happy. Not just for us and them, but for the women who will be the next generation. The ripple effect is bigger than just the three of them.”
Promotion and tenure at MU follows rigorous guidelines that take teaching, research success and service into account to advance professors through three tiers — from assistant to associate to full professorship — over more than a decade.
But like many technical fields, science lags behind in its proportion of women to men. Growing that diversity is important to the breadth of scientific inquiry. As an advocate of collaboration, the promotion of three women to full professor at Bond LSC hopes to reinforce that diversity.
Cornelison and Mitchum were quick to stress their promotions had nothing to do with their gender, and everything to do with their science.
“It just doesn’t cross my mind,” Mitchum said. “I honestly don’t walk around thinking about gender. I just do the best I can and that’s all I can do.”
Similarly, Cornelison said, “I am not a female scientist. I am a scientist. Period. It should not be a part of the story.”
Rosenfeld, however, is concerned that administrators are not giving women the support necessary to flourish in their careers.
“I work seven days a week and I deserve respect and to be taken seriously on par with my male colleagues,” she said. “I am not doing this as a hobby. This is my passion, and, hopefully in the future, women like myself will be treated equally.”
A Pervasive Problem
A study conducted in 2015 by the Chancellor’s Status of Women Committee and the Status of Women Committee in the College of Arts and Science at MU found that with regard to gender equity on campus, there was no evidence of a systematic pay bias against female faculty. However, it did find that the average salary for female faculty is almost $16,000 (or 15 percent) below the average salary for male faculty and that the colleges with the highest average salaries were predominantly male.
Cornelison, Mitchum and Rosenfeld all believe that female scientists at MU face at least three significant hurdles on their path to full professor: the amount of time it takes compared to their male colleagues, the lack of mentorship, and the high ratio of male full professors compared to female full professors in several departments.
Mitchum stated that there are only two other female full professors — Jeanne Mihail and Michelle Warmund — in the plant sciences department compared to at least 17 males. Rosenfeld and Cornelison had similar ratios in their respective departments.
Recent controversies indicate gender equity is a persistent challenge in the field as a whole.
In 2015, a study published by the American Psychological Association found that when considering requests from prospective students seeking mentoring in the future, the science faculty at research-intensive universities were more likely to hire a male lab manager, mentor him, pay him more and rate him as more competent than a female candidate with the exact same resume. And this year, two senior female scientists sued the prestigious Salk Institute for Biological Studies, alleging pervasive gender discrimination and systematic sexism.
Although female scientists remain underrepresented in many countries, academic journal publisher Elsevier released a report in 2017 that shows improvement. It stated that women’s scholarly authorship increased overall from 30 percent in the late 1990s to 40 percent two decades later. In terms of raw proportions, the percentage of women scientists in the U.S. increased from 31 percent from 1996-2000 to 40 percent from 2011-2015.
Rosenfeld, Cornelison and Mitchum’s success in the departments of Biomedical Sciences, Biological Sciences and Plant Sciences, respectively, follow several decades of hard work and passion in their fields.
But their interest in science started in unique ways.
“In middle and high school I was always excited about science classes,” said Mitchum. “I liked physics. I liked chemistry. I was lucky to have a science teacher, Patty Gustin, who knew I had an interest in science, saw some potential and encouraged me. She was actually the first person to encourage me to go on to college in science.”
Mitchum went on to get an undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. She immediately continued her education and received her masters in plant pathology at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and her Ph.D. in plant pathology and biotechnology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
Cheryl Rosenfeld’s high school biology teacher, Patricia Murphy, was also the first person to put her on the science track.
“I can still picture her to this day,” Rosenfeld said, smiling. “She gave me a C on my first lab assignment. My friend received a better grade and we did the same work, so I asked her why I got such a low grade. She told me that I was going to be a scientist, that she expected more of me, and to improve my grade she allowed me to help prep the lab experiments.”
Rosenfeld went on to receive a bachelor of science and DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Ph.D. in Animal Sciences and Reproductive Biology from MU.
Cornelison’s path was a bit different. Like many undergraduate scientists, she initially thought she would go to medical school. But during an independent study, she was assigned to a lab doing behavior genetics in mice and fell in love with research.
“Unlike my experience in Chemistry classes, I was now in an environment where I was expected to go and do things nobody had ever done before,” Cornelison said. “And I got to tell people about it. And I got to decide what the next unknown thing I wanted to know was. After that, I had to decide whether to apply to medical school or graduate school because I only had enough money to take the GRE or the MCAT, so I took the GRE. And I am still incredibly grateful for the people who took me into their lab and taught me to science.”
Cornelison credits that experience with why she enjoys having undergraduates in her lab. To date, over 20 of them have graduated with departmental honors based on their independent research projects.
“If I can give students a taste of what that experience of discovery feels like, I’m happy. It changes your perspective on many things,” she said.
The concept of mentorship is something Rosenfeld, Cornelison and Mitchum all agree is critical for budding scientists, male or female.
Each shared stories about the vast amount of mentors that inspired them and students they still keep in contact with. Mitchum has an especially meaningful relationship with one of her mentors.
“While I was working in a lab as an undergraduate I had the opportunity to interact with a visiting scientist who would work in our lab, Donald Foard, an older gentleman at the time, and he became my mentor,” Mitchum said fondly. “I don’t think I would be where I am today without his mentorship. As an undergraduate, he encouraged me. He believed in me. He inspired me to go to graduate school. And we still keep in contact today. He is 86 years old now and we still write letters back and forth. I recently had the privilege of sending him my promotion letter. The sheer excitement of sharing that promotion with him was incredibly meaningful.”
“Without him believing in me I don’t think I would be sitting here talking to you about this promotion today,” she added. “He believed in me during a time when I didn’t believe in myself.”
Supporting Women in STEM
In an effort to promote mentorship and address female-specific concerns in the STEM fields, such as wage negotiation and salary differences, MU recently started its first Women in STEM group. The group was spearheaded by Rosenfeld and Azizan-Gardner, and had its first meeting in July.
“The issue of mentoring is something that you see everywhere, not just here,” said Azizan-Gardner. “It is a pervasive problem we need to address. And we can do that here at MU and do something that will really benefit everyone.”
Female mentorship is something that Rosenfeld believes is critical for female scientists and she makes an effort to mentor female undergraduate and graduate students.
“When you’re struggling, you often think that there is no way you can do this,” said Rosenfeld. “But if you see someone that looks like you that has succeeded and is teaching you, all the sudden your goal does not seem impossible.”
Mitchum is another strong proponent of mentorship and undergraduate research. She has mentored 26 undergraduate researchers in her lab, and 12 of them went on to graduate school, while many of the rest went to medical school.
“It’s so important for us as mentors, female or male, to believe in and encourage the younger generation,” she said. “I believe in many cases, you just need someone to believe in you and know you can accomplish things. It’s important to have quality in mentorship — investing in students and giving students your time and direct attention.”
Rosenfeld hopes that the Women in STEM group will empower female scientists to be more assertive. She said the first meeting was “eye opening” because many of the participants had similar experiences and it was powerful to hear their frustrations. About 20 women attended the first meeting, and Rosenfeld is confident that number will increase.
Azizan-Gardner believes that Bond LSC has the potential to be a leader in promoting, recruiting and retaining female scientists. And as a result, will encourage more women to go into STEM fields.
“I hope having a strong Women in STEM group will be great recruitment as well for other general faculty to come to MU,” said Azizan-Gardner. “At least that’s my goal, and that’s the area I’m responsible for. And on top of that, I think it will really entice other undergraduate women to go into STEM.”