Spring 2014 Burnett Research Scholars Grant Recipients

 

Grace Avecila

Major:  Biology

Faculty mentor: Dr. Hojung Song, Department of Biology

Project title:  Gene Expression of Heat Shock Proteins in Crowded versus Isolated S. Americana

Project summary:
My research is on differential gene expression of heat shock proteins between the isolated and crowded phases of the American Birdwing Grasshopper, Schistocerca americana. S. americana is one of the many species that displays phenotypic plasticity, that is, the ability to display different phenotypes from one genotype in different environments. S. americana display a particular type of phenotypic plasticity called density-dependent phenotypic plasticity, in which the environmental variable which cause a change in phenotype is population density. Different stressors are associated with different population densities, and I hope to elucidate, through gene expression of heat shock proteins, how this is coped with at a cellular and molecular level.

What is your area of research interest?
I am interested in genomics and transcriptomics, especially their capacity to bring to light life history traits and evolutionary narratives.

How did you get started in undergraduate research?
I knew from the beginning that I wanted research to be a big part of my undergraduate experience. Toward the end of my first semester, I learned about the research faculty in the Biology Department, and emailed professors whose projects I was most interested. I was lucky enough that Dr. Song had room in his lab and was willing to give me a chance to learn about lab work, and I have been working in the Song Lab since Spring 2013.

How has the Burnett Research Scholars grant helped you achieve the goals of your research project?
The Burnett Research Scholars grant will help pay for many of the laboratory costs associated with my project. Unfortunately, molecular research is very expensive, and it was unlikely that I would have been able to conduct my own study without this or some other outside support.

What are your future academic and professional goals?
After I graduate, I would like to go to graduate school and eventually get a PhD. I hope to continue doing research throughout my career.

In your opinion, what is the best thing about being an undergraduate researcher?
I think that the best thing about being an undergraduate researcher is that you can apply concepts that you learn in class and garner a much fuller understanding of those topics. I also think that it's really cool to be exposed to professionals in your field and work with people at many different levels (other undergraduates, grad students, faculty) who share your interests.

 

  

Shelly Hassett

Major:  Chemistry

Faculty mentor:  Dr. Karin Chumbimuni-Torres, Department of Chemistry

Project title:  Optimization of Ion Sensing Optodes Based on Photoacid Compounds

Project summary:
Our lab has developed an optode sensor for low concentrations of sodium ions. It’s a membrane that interacts with its environment when exposed to blue light. Eventually this sensor could be scaled down to nano-size for use in live cells, or other biomedical applications. My project is twofold. First I am testing the limitations of the sensor under biological conditions (37 degrees Celsius, PBS buffer,) and optimizing the sensor. “Optimizing” just means I’ll change the composition of the membrane if necessary to maintain the clear response we get from the sensor at room temperature in triz buffer. Then I will be working to adapt the optimized optode system for other ions, such as calcium, potassium, and silver. 

What is your area of research interest?
My research interests are in the field of analytical chemistry, more specifically in developing sensors for new applications. 

How did you get started in undergraduate research?
As a National Merit scholar and a chemistry major, my faculty mentor is Dr. Belfield, chair of the chemistry department. I had a meeting with him my freshman year about a month after college started to discuss career goals. He suggested I get involved with research, and that day introduced me to Dr. Chumbimuni-Torres.  At the time her lab was just starting, and I was the third student to join. I’ve been working in her lab ever since.

How has the Burnett Research Scholars grant helped you achieve the goals of your research project?
The Burnett Research Scholars grant is funding the purchase of ionophores for the membranes, a key part of the optode. Ionophores are a class of molecules that target specific ions, allowing us to tailor the response of the optode to a specific ion. A 50 mg bottle (5% of a gram) of sodium ionophore X costs nearly 200 dollars. The grant covers the most expensive part of my project, allowing me to go forward with it.  

What are your future academic and professional goals?
Eventually I intend to earn a PhD in Chemistry, and then go on to become a professor and researcher at a University somewhere. I want to work on solutions for global problems, and I like the idea of mentoring new chemists and sharing my love for the field with others who want to make a difference in the world through chemistry.  

In your opinion, what is the best thing about being an undergraduate researcher?
For me, the best part about being an undergraduate researcher is getting to work with and learn from other students and faculty members. It’s a lot more fun than learning out of a textbook. Also my colleagues have helped me to develop my independent and critical thinking skills, through challenging me to ask better questions and give better answers. 

 

 

Laura Herndon

Major:  Biomedical Sciences

Faculty mentor:  Dr. Ken Teter, Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences

Project title:  Identification of the Domain(s) in Protein Disulfide Isomerase That Are Required for Binding and Disassembly of the Cholera Holotoxin

Project summary:

Cholera toxin (CT), produced by Vibrio cholerae, is an AB5-type protein toxin that causes 3-5 million annual cases of diarrhea leading to 100,000 - 120,000 deaths.  The toxin is comprised of an enzymatically active A1 chain, an A2 linker, and a cell-binding B pentamer.  The CT holotoxin moves from the cell surface to the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) of a target cell.  To cause intoxication, CTA1 is displaced from CTA2/CTB5 in the ER and is then transferred to the cytosol where it induces a diarrheal response by stimulating the efflux of chloride ions into the intestinal lumen.  Protein disulfide isomerase (PDI), a resident ER oxidoreductase and chaperone, is involved in detaching CTA1 from the holotoxin.  The PDI domain(s) that binds to CTA1 and precisely how this interaction is involved in CTA1 dissociation from the holotoxin are unknown.  The goal of this project is to identify which domain(s) of PDI is responsible for binding to CTA1 and dislodging CTA1 from the rest of the toxin.  PDI has an abb’xa’c structural organization that consists of two catalytic domains (a & a’) separated by two non-catalytic domains (b & b’) and a short x-linker, along with an acidic C-terminal c domain.  We have purified full-length PDI and a panel of truncated proteins containing various domains of PDI.  We have also established an ELISA assay to monitor PDI-CT binding and disassembly interactions.  This assay will be used in conjunction with the PDI deletion constructs to determine which PDI domain(s) binds to CTA1, as well as whether or not CTA1 is dislodged from the holotoxin in the presence of the various constructs.  This work will provide important molecular insight into a crucial interaction for the CT intoxication process.

What is your area of research interest?
My area of research is in infectious diseases.  Right now I am working with cholera.  Cholera is a disease that causes massive secretory diarrhea which can lead to life-threatening dehydration.  Since 1817 there have been seven cholera pandemics, and the disease is currently endemic in over 50 countries.  The World Health Organization estimates that there are approximately 3-5 million cases of cholera leading to 100,000-120,000 deaths annually.  I am currently working on determining how a crucial specific protein, protein disulfide isomerase, is involved in the cholera intoxication process. 

Long term, my research career interests are in cancer.  Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States and according to the American Cancer Society website, “about 1,660,290 new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2013, and in 2013 about 580,350 Americans are projected to die of cancer, almost 1,600 people a day.”  Those statistics are heart breaking.  Research developments in cancer treatment and therapy techniques have saved many, including my mom.  I can’t think of a more important and impactful field to continue research in.

How did you get started in undergraduate research?
I got started in undergraduate research by participating in the UCF Summer Research Academy (SRA) during the summer 2012 semester.  SRA is a three day program over summer that gives students the chance to “learn about the nature of university research, meet with research faculty and other students active in research at UCF, and learn about research opportunities available to undergraduate students at UCF.”  During this program, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Teter and expressed an interest in starting research as soon as possible.  It was a good match and I was invited to work in his lab. 

How has the Burnett Research Scholars grant helped you achieve the goals of your research project?
Taking part in biomedical research can be fulfilling and impactful but the price tag is extremely expensive.  With the help of the Burnett Research Scholars grant, I have been able to focus more and successfully perform my experiments while worrying less about my tight budget.  The Burnett Research Scholars grant has truly provided the necessary means for me to develop and take on my project head-on.

What are your future academic and professional goals?
My future academic goal is to earn a M.D./Ph.D. degree in order to get the best of both worlds, training in medicine and research.  As for my professional goals, if I had the choice I would do it all: practice medicine, conduct research and teach to the next generation.  The idea of going into a field where I can do all three is extremely exciting!  I am so blessed to have the opportunity to really make an impact on the world and provide the means to keep families healthy and happy in the future.  

In your opinion, what is the best thing about being an undergraduate researcher?
The best thing about being an undergraduate researcher is having the opportunity to be a part of something bigger at such a young age.  The work that I am doing and the techniques that I am learning in the cholera lab can potentially change someone’s life in the future.  The idea of having that kind of power while in school is such an amazing feeling.  I am part of a larger community that is working to make the world a better, safer and healthier place.  There is nothing cooler than that.