Summer Research in Hiester's Lab

This summer, campus was not nearly as busy as it is during the academic year. However, the Sampson Hoffland Labs were still bustling with students. Many students got the opportunity to do summer research, and Joshua Lutaakome and Jarod Phillips were two such students. Joshua and Jarod both had the opportunity to work as part-time undergraduate researchers in Dr. Brian Hiester’s lab over the summer, focusing on projects related to genetics.

Jarod chose to focus his research on garlic mustard and investigated the sequence of its EPSP-synthase gene, which produces a protein that is crucial for the creation of certain amino acids. Many herbicides target this gene, which is why products that contain glyphosate are such effective plant-killers. While glyphosate is still highly effective against garlic mustard, Jarod wanted to investigate whether garlic mustard had multiple copies of the EPSP-synthase gene, which may indicate the potential for glyphosate resistance. Using a variety of molecular biology techniques, Jarod was able to isolate the part of the garlic mustard genome that includes the EPSP-synthase gene. After isolating the DNA, Jarod used DNA sequencing to determine the sequence of garlic mustard’s EPSP-synthase gene, and further experiments aimed at measuring the number of copies of the EPSP-synthase gene can build off of Jarod’s data.

Joshua chose to focus his research on the function of MMPs (matrix metalloproteinases), a protein-degrading enzyme that helps to maintain the extracellular matrix, in C. elegans. MMP genes and proteins in C. elegans are similar to those found in humans, and unusual MMP function has been linked to cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. In order to investigate MMP, Joshua attempted to reduce the expression of two MMP genes, zmp-3 and zmp-5, so he could observe differences in the worm’s physical characteristics and development. Ultimately, Joshua observed that C. elegans developed faster when zmp-3 expression was reduced. Joshua’s findings can be used to further investigate the function of MMPs in C. elegans and humans.

Discovering something new or generating new data can be very exciting, but there is quite a bit of hard work that goes into producing those results. Jarod and Joshua feel that they have both grown more resilient after this summer research experience. Both encountered numerous setbacks with their research, and frequently had to go back to the drawing board and revise their approach. However, they both know that this is a part of the real research process and even a so-called “failed” experiment can provide important insights for further study. Additionally, other soft skills can be just as important in the lab as a scientific background. Both Jarod and Joshua said that BIO 201 (Genetics) was an important source of background information for their research projects. However, when asked what non-scientific course prepared them most this summer research experience, Jarod mentioned that the Paideia program helped him critically analyze pre-existing literature on his subject and clearly communicate his own ideas. When asked the same question, Joshua said that taking a course on High Ropes/Challenge Course programs helped him learn how to get out of his comfort zone, which he feels is essential to research. Backgrounds in science are important, but resilience, clear communication, and risk taking are also essential to success in the lab.

When asked to give advice to students who were considering a summer research experience, both Joshua and Jarod gave the same answer: don’t be afraid to reach out! Both Joshua and Jarod recommend that students considering a research experience reach out to professors in their area of interest. Even if this professor may not have an opportunity to supervise student research, they may know of other opportunities the student could pursue. Dr. Hiester also encourages students to reach out to their professors, as most professors want to help get their students into research experiences, and “if it’s something you’re interested in, let it be known!”.

Jarod Phillips in Hiester lab
Jarod Dr. Hiester and Joshua