FRI Turns 10!

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FRI faculty, students and stakeholders met on October 16 and 17 to celebrate the program’s 10 Year Anniversary. The anniversary weekend had two events: the FRI Industry Open House and the FRI Anniversary Picnic. FRI is now an ingrained part of the UT research community. This year’s incoming class was close to 900 students, and the Accelerated Research Initiative is opening the program’s doors to transfer students and others who missed the opportunity during their first year.

The first event of the anniversary weekend was the FRI Industry Open House, which is designed to build bridges and collaborations between FRI and industry partners. During the open house, small working groups of FRI faculty, students, peer mentors, administrators and industry representatives shared their goals for FRI and their vision of what the next 10 years of the program would look like.

Erin Dolan, Executive Director of the Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science, started the event by presenting the growth of FRI over the past 10 years. Prior to FRI, only a small number of undergraduates had access to research opportunities in faculty labs on campus. According to Dolan, the FRI offered “access to a group of students who wouldn’t normally have access to a research experience. Today, around 40 percent of the College of Natural Sciences incoming class participate in FRI.”

Commenting on her experiences touring FRI streams as a fundraiser for the Dean’s office, Kristine Haskett said “You never know what you’re going to hear when you walk through an FRI stream.” She cited the ability of students from the Antibiotics stream to determine strep throat cultures by smell alone.

David Vanden Bout, the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in CNS, said that if he could go back to his undergraduate years, he’d definitely enroll in a program like the FRI. “In the end, the FRI is absolutely transformative” he said, adding that “it’s the way science education should be.”

Research Educators present their ideas for the furture of the FRI.
Research Educators present their ideas for the future of the FRI.

Dolan then directed the tables to brainstorm ideas for the future of FRI. After 45 minutes of intense discussions, the groups presented their recommendations.

Ideas for the next 10 years included increasing student participation by introducing graduate students to lead research, developing more interdisciplinary and inter-college research streams, and developing stronger partnerships with industry leaders.

The FRI is already expanding its influence between disciplines with one of its newest streams, System Security, which is a collaborative stream between Computer Science and Electrical Engineering to improve online security in ways that incorporate both industry and academia. Research Educator, Ashay Rane, teaches his students critical thinking and communication skills so that they can “open up new avenues” in the realm of internet security.

Kelsey Evans, the Assistant Dean for External Relations for the College of Natural Sciences, oversees development operations. Evans asserted that the program speaks for itself. “People do not need convincing when it comes to the FRI,” she said. Evans and her team are currently working to create a $10 million to $12 million endowment to sustain the FRI as HHMI funding lessens over the next five years.

On Saturday, former FRI Director and co-founder, Sarah Simmons joined a group of Research Educators, faculty, donors, alumni and students for the FRI Anniversary Picnic.

Erin Dolan (left) and Sarah Simmons represent leadership spanning the life of the FRI.
Erin Dolan (left) and Sarah Simmons represent leadership spanning the life of the FRI.

Director Dolan began by talking about the first time she’d heard of the concept of a freshman research project. It happened while serving on a National Science Foundation panel with Sarah Simmons.

Dolan said that 10 years ago, she had had her doubts about whether the program would attain its goals. But speaking on Saturday, she said “here we are: 10 years later, 40-odd streams later, and 6,000-plus alumni later, and apparently it worked.” Dolan added that while completing traditional coursework it took her until graduate school to move from thinking about science as it was taught in school to a science based on discovery of the unknown.

Simmons, now a Senior Program Officer at HHMI, also shared a few remarks with the group, saying that since the beginning of the program, founders told themselves that “we just have to keep going until it’s too big to kill,” concluding that after a decade “I think we’re finally there.” According to Simmons, FRI started when a small group of faculty and administrators decided to do something about the concrete problems they would come up against in the College of Natural Sciences. Today, FRI is so influential that it is shaping the national dialogue about science education, causing leaders to question what the fundamentals of a university experience should include.

“We could not have imagined this,” Simmons said, reminding us that 10 years from now,  FRI will probably be something even greater than we can imagine today.

Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student

Faces of FRI: Dalton Burch

Burch uses his woodworking skills to solve problems in lab as well as in life in his workshop.
Burch uses his woodworking skills to solve problems in lab as well as in life.

After spending all four years in the Freshman Research Initiative, Dalton Burch graduated this spring with a Bachelor’s of Science in Biochemistry. He worked as a researcher, a mentor, and a TA for the Nanomaterials for Chemical Catalysis Stream, becoming a leader through his inclusive nature and passion for the research. Burch spent his entire undergraduate career, including all three summers, with the Nano Stream.

After spending over 1,500 hours in lab, Burch played a part in most of the projects in the Nano Stream, as well as his own independent research. For his own work, Burch studied bimetallic nanoparticles, comparing different ratios of two metals to find out which would give the best catalytic performance, known as a synergistic effect. Even with a full lab schedule, Burch still found time to prepare presentations for middle school students during the summer, and to support the student researchers in his charge as a mentor and then a teaching assistant.

Dr. Stacia Rodenbusch, the Research Educator for the Nano Stream, thinks that Burch “really likes running the show.” Rodenbusch asked Burch to join her stream as a freshman, after watching him work with other students in his research methods class. “He was really engaged and active,” she said, adding that “he has always been one of the most outgoing, inclusive people in the group.”

After graduation, Burch started looking for jobs in the start-up realm, searching for a small company that he would be able to grow with. Burch also wanted a post that would challenge him, saying that “that’s the way I’ve been groomed in the FRI, to want to think about the big problems.”

Burch got his break when he received an e-mail from the University with two potential jobs, one for the Texas Alcohol and Beverages Committee, and another for a brand new start-up AptamiR Therapeutics: he applied to both. By this point, Burch had learned that most job openings were inundated with applicants after even a few days online, so he made it a habit to check listings every six hours, and tried to apply for openings no more than two days old. This time, it worked out.

AptamiR extended a position as a research assistant after an extensive interview process which took from mid-July to the end of September. In the meantime, Burch worked as a tool rental technician at Home Depot. “Basically, my entire job … was fixing things that people would bring in,” he said.

Burch’s knowledge of mechanics and woodworking helped him in lab as well. Dr. Rodenbusch remembers a point during Burch’s time in the lab when he designed and made bottle holders to organize containers in the fume hood, which the Nano Stream still uses today. “[Dalton] embodies that attitude of ‘okay, here’s what I need, I’m going to just make it happen,” she said.

When he started work at AptamiR, Burch was relieved. “Nothing against Home Depot,” he said, “but it’s not a biotechnology company.”

Dalton Burch at the new AptamiR lab.
Dalton Burch at the new AptamiR lab.

Now, Burch takes the commute to AptamiR’s North Austin lab in the morning, taking advantage of flexible hours to beat the traffic. He checks on the freezer and current projects, then meets with the lab’s research associate, also a recent UT graduate, to plan out what is needed for the day. As it turns out, the first few months of a startup are learning experiences in networking. Agents need to be ordered, equipment checked and new contacts made.

So far, Burch is grateful that he learned to read primary literature during his undergraduate years. Most of the research he does can’t be found in textbooks, it’s too new. So knowing how to do primary literature searches, reading review articles, and going through references has helped Burch to navigate a new field of expertise. “While I don’t have a map,” Burch said, “now I at least have a compass.”

The startup is working create microRNA-based treatments that target fat cells, which it hopes can be used to combat obesity. Burch enjoys focusing on the issue, which affects quality of life in the US and worldwide. “The problems at work don’t feel like problems, because it doesn’t feel like work,” he said.

Starting his new career hasn’t lessened Burch’s passion for the FRI. Burch still returns to have lunch with friends and check on the lab where he spent so much time while he was here. Looking forward, Burch entertains the possibility of becoming a research educator for the FRI or an equivalent program at another university. Dr. Rodenbusch thinks that Burch would be an excellent choice for the position, explaining that his experience in industry will help students interested in careers outside of academia develop their perspectives. He still hasn’t ruled out working in industry however, saying that “it is nice to get paid for something that you love to do.”

Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student

Look for a new Faces of FRI feature the first friday of every month to learn about current and former exemplary FRI students.

Building Better Bacteria

 

The 2015 iGEM teams from the University of Texas
The 2015 iGEM teams from The University of Texas at Austin

For the past few months, a team of students from the Hijacking Microbial Factories for Synthetic Biology stream has worked to keep bacteria from doing what they do best: evolving.

One of the biggest problems that synthetic biologists face today is ensuring that the changes they make to bacteria continue working for as many generations as needed. A group of student researchers from the stream manipulated the bacterium E.coli  to look for the mutations that ‘break’ artificial modifications, and in turn keep cells from producing the proteins that they were programmed to make.

The researchers presented their work in Boston for the International Genetically Engineered Machine, or iGEM, competition this September. The event, called the Giant Jamboree, included the work of 280 teams from universities worldwide.

Minimizing the mutations that cause cells to change over time would be a huge benefit to synthetic biology research. Dennis Mishler, the Research Educator for the Synthetic Biology Stream, explained that “evolution is great for things that want to live and grow and survive,” but is “really bad for people who want to reprogram bacteria.” When mutations cause cells to stop doing what researchers program them to do, they tend to be able to save more energy, making them better at surviving than their modified counterparts. Even small changes to their genetic programming can change entire populations over short spans of time.

The basic procedure the team used was to create plasmids, loops of DNA that contain the sequence of DNA that scientists choose to modify, or the genetic device. These plasmids are then introduced to cells within a culture. Students programmed these cells to produce fluorescent proteins, which can be measured by the intensity of light they give off.

Once a significant amount of the florescence had decreased, researchers knew that the genetic device was no longer working correctly, and that most likely many of the cells had stopped producing these proteins. They then chose a representative colony of the bacteria to send out for DNA sequencing, which allowed them to check for mutations.

After testing, Computer Science Major Tyler Rocha says that the team found two groups of devices, those that were “either very unstable or very stable.”

This research has helped improve the Evolutionary Failure Mode Calculator, an online form developed by the Barrick lab in the Department of Chemistry that allows users to insert the genetic sequences of their cultures and detect mutational hotspots. “Our hope is to make this calculator available to a lot of synthetic researchers,” said Sanjana Reddy, a Biology Major on the team.

Continuing with research from previous years, the 2015 iGEM team also worked to build genetic devices with real world applications. In 2012 students from the stream’s iGEM team pioneered a plasmid that would allow bacteria to break down methylxanthine compounds, with the intention of determining how much caffeine different beverages contain. This plasmid works well for artificial drinks like sodas, which contain pure caffeine solutions, but organic beverages like tea and coffee contain other methylxanthine compounds that are highly similar to caffeine, making it hard to measure exact amounts of caffeine. This year’s team, led by senior Alex Gutierrez, created a set of plasmids which together can determine the concentrations of each compound, including caffeine.

Plate from SXSW outreach program.
Plate from SXSW outreach program. Courtesy of the Barrick lab.

To meet iGEM community outreach recommendations, researchers set up a booth at the South by Southwest festival, encouraging people to ‘paint’ with modified bacteria and sending back pictures of their glowing plates afterwards. “Synthetic biology is something that not everyone is on board with,” Neuroscience Major Natalie Schulte said, “a lot of that comes from people not understanding what it is.”

The team presented their findings this September alongside groups from other US and international institutions. They team completed a 20 minute presentation and a ten minute Q & A session. Schulte accredited the large audience to the fundamental nature of the project, explaining that “all of those projects are in a way dependent on evolutionary stability.” The aptly named ‘Breaking is Bad’ project received an individual gold standard, awarded to fewer than half of the competing teams.

Looking forward to next year, the students are excited about starting on ideas from the spring semester which warrant more attention, or continuing with current projects, such as evolutionary stability, which still have potential for improvement. Dr. Mishler described plans for projects turning bacteria into living sensors for pH and temperature, and making bees more resilient to external chemicals like pesticides.

Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student

Faces of FRI: Pato Lankenau

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Pato Lankenau, a third-year Computer Science Major, will be graduating this spring.

When he started out in the Autonomous Intelligent Robotics stream, Patricio (Pato) Lankenau had no idea that he’d soon become known as the ‘quadcopter guy’ for his research teaching paradrones to scan their environments. For his independent research, Lankenau used a Microsoft Kinect® to track the trajectory of a Ping-Pong ball and command a quadcopter to move in 3-d space to catch it.

Now whenever the lab needs to show off its aerial skills Lankenau is the one behind the controls. Robotics research is a new experience for the Computer Science major, who mentioned that “it’s fine when it’s a computer that will crash, but it’s not fine when it’s a quadcopter that’s coming at you.”

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Student Researchers work in the Autonomous Intelligent Robotics Stream lab.

The project is an extension of the Turing Scholars student’s fascination with localization. Lankneau is currently working on his honors thesis with the Principal Investigator of the robotics stream, Peter Stone, to track objects as they move through non-static environments. Today interactive robots create permanent maps of the objects around them, so there’s currently “no way to differentiate between a wall that’s unlikely to move and a table or chair or even a person,” according to Lankenau. A better system would incorporate multiple robots to form a more accurate representation of the environment, an idea which Lankenau hopes to explore using the Building-Wide Intelligence Project of five robots located in the Gates-Dell Science Complex.

Matteo Leonetti, the Research Educator for the Robotics stream, says that Lankenau stood out in lab from the beginning, adding that he is “passionate about computer science and research, ambitious and competent,” and that “working with him has been a pleasure.”

Lankenau’s successes aren’t confined to university programs: after showing a friend a project he was working on freshman year, Lankenau was brought in on the ground floor of a technology startup, NetworkLift. The web service used algorithms to trawl Instagram profiles and customize a user’s account actions in order to grow a following. The team found that the most effective way to gain new followers is through systematically liking photos, successfully managing the accounts of celebrities and public figures. Lankenau left the company when it moved from Texas, but noted that it has since expanded to include other social media platforms.

Along with artificial intelligence, Lankenau developed an affinity for distributed systems while completing an internship at Apple, where he worked on iCloud storage systems. Distributed systems are fault tolerant, meaning that if one part of a system fails, the information contained within isn’t compromised. Talking about his work with information, Lankenau said “you want the data to be set up in a way that hard drives can fail, machines can die, and you never lose the integrity of the user data.”

Accomplishing so much in a just a few years requires making some sacrifices. Lankenau stopped watching TV in favor of working on coding and taking time to network, saying that “if you manage your time well you have plenty of time to do other interesting things.”

One of the extracurriculars Lankenau promotes is going to meetups in your field of interest. By introducing himself to specialized communities within Austin, Lankenau has made valuable connections outside of UT. Company recruiters aren’t looking for the work students do in class, “because everybody does that,” he said. Instead, students should do work outside of class and use their free time wisely in order to be competitive.

Lankenau is looking forward to a career in distributed systems after he graduates with the class of 2016, and has full-time offers from Apple and Uber. Lankenau is compelled to return to Apple in order to continue working with Bernard Gallet, a Sr. Engineering Manager of a team that specializes on Apple infrastructure projects, after completing an internship together over the summer. According to Lankenau, Gallet is a visionary with innovative views for where his team should be in the next few years. “I want him to be my mentor, so I definitely want to stick to him,” Lankenau said.

Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student

This article was the first in a continuing series of  monthly features on FRI students, called Faces of FRI. Expect to learn about a distinguished FRI student on the first FRIday of every month.

FRI Alumnus Receives the Beckman Scholars Award

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Oscar Villarreal (second from left) with previous Beckman Scholars.

Oscar Villarreal will conduct independent research on cancer therapeutics this year after becoming one of the newest members of the UT Beckman Scholars, an award presented to outstanding undergraduate researchers.

Villarreal was introduced to research through his first year in the FRI, working on epidemic typhus in the Virtual Drug Screening stream (VDS). Despite his misgivings, saying that “in high school I thought that research was ridiculous,” he grew to appreciate and enjoy research as the program progressed.

The Beckman Scholars program at UT receives funding from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, which chooses candidates from universities across the nation. The program allows students to design and execute a full-time independent research projects over 15 months, covering two summer semesters and to the fall and spring semesters in between. Students are expected to work on a research project with hopes of publication, and present their findings at the annual CNS Undergraduate Research Forum, a national or international conference during the spring, and at the Beckman Scholar Symposium at the end of their allotted term.

Oscar Villarreal, a Biochemistry Senior
Oscar Villarreal, a Biochemistry Senior

The research Villarreal is working on for Beckman’s is a natural extension of the bio- and protein engineering he learned with the VDS stream and the Walter Fast lab, a part of the UT College of Pharmacy. Whether it was working with infectious diseases, targeting molecular compounds, or analyzing cancer, many procedures remained the same. “Currently I’m running a Western Blot,” Villarreal said, “eventually I’m going to be doing tissue culturing, cytotoxicity testing, and stuff like that.”

The biochemistry senior advised that “every freshman that’s in natural sciences should join FRI,” adding that the concepts he learned doing research helped in “every single class since I was in VDS.” In his words:

I don’t feel like people can adequately describe what research is like. You definitely have to try it. The introductory laboratories don’t do it justice: that’s not research; that’s very boring compared to what you do in research. It’s extremely challenging but it’s also the most rewarding thing you can do. I would recommend everyone with even the slightest doubt to try research.

Villarreal adds that his experience helped him to be competitive for a pre-MD/PhD program in Michigan over the past summer, and that presenting at local and national conferences has helped to show his potential as an applicant to such programs.

Ruth Shear, the Program Director for the Beckman Scholars UT chapter, says that students interested in research should apply for the program regardless of their background, citing a history of unusual scholarship recipients, including freshmen and students without a history as researchers. One of Shear’s fondest hopes is that students can “hang in long enough to feel the joy and excitement that comes when an experiment works,” so that they can “discover for themselves if this might be their life’s work.”

As a professor for one of the Scientific Inquiry Across the Disciplines classes that most FRI students take their first semester, Shear met Villarreal when he was first starting out in research. “Even as a freshman, Oscar was impressing me with the experiments he designed for my class,” Shear said.

When it comes to the future, Villarreal hopes to complete a MD/PhD program before moving on to train as a surgeon. He wants to work with patients and in the lab, saying that as an MD/PhD “you can see where the gaps are in medicine and you can work on them in lab, better the field, and not just affect one patient at a time but a huge number.”

Villarreal has also been honored at the Aspire Awards Banquet, an event held by the College of Natural Sciences which celebrates the accomplishments of underrepresented students, and has presented at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.

Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student

Going International: FRI Students Participate in the LSAMP Summer Research Academy Abroad

The Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) is best known for encouraging underrepresented minority students to pursue STEM degrees across the UT System. However, this year two former FRI students took advantage of the lesser known study abroad program, a part of the LSAMP’s larger Summer Research Academy.

Mariano Aufiero is a Microbiology and Plan II senior with a passion for immunology research. He spent his summer working at the Charité University, a teaching hospital in Berlin, Germany. There, as a part of an immunology lab, Aufiero studied T-cells and their relation to allergy and autoimmunity.

Maria Villalpando (second from left) and Mariano Aufiero (far right) attend the LSAMP annual conference.
Maria Villalpando (second from left) and Mariano Aufiero (far right) attend the LSAMP annual conference.

This experience builds on a long research career that began for Aufiero the summer before his senior year of high school, in a plant biology lab at UT Arlington. After coming to UT Austin, he started in the Supramolecular Sensors Stream of the FRI and moved into Dr. Lauren Ehrlich’s lab, located in the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology’s Department of Molecular Biosciences. Previous to LSAMP, Aufiero also completed summer research programs at the University of North Texas and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Aufiero values his undergraduate research, because “As a researcher any sort of exposure that you can get in a lab is good,” and learning basic techniques will help in any research career. Research has helped in science classes as well. In his current immunology labs, Aufiero says “I actually do those techniques in lab all the time.”

“The LSAMP program is a phenomenal program for underrepresented students in research fields,” Aufiero said, adding that “people who don’t get an FRI summer fellowship can do the LSAMP summer fellowship” and still get valuable research experience.

Although he “came by immunology a little bit by accident,” Aufiero is now looking forward to graduate school, aiming for a PhD in immunology or something similar.

Maria Villalpando also traveled to Western Europe for her LSAMP experience, spending her summer at the Institute of Plant Sciences in Bern, Switzerland. Working under Dr. Markus Fischer, Villalpando researched the effects of biodiversity on performance in plant communities.

The work was different than her previous experiences in the Jeunger Lab in the UT Department of Integrative Biology, because while she worked with a specific plant, Panicum hallii, to find genes controlling cold tolerance, the Fischer lab looks at entire communities of plants. This caused Villalpando to “approach questions very differently.”

Maria Villalpando presents her LSAMP research
Maria Villalpando presents her LSAMP research

While in Bern, Villalpando noticed that while Swiss culture is not radically different from American culture, the people she met were “aware of a lot of things in their lives,” like their waste and food sources, and the impact they have on their environment. Villalpando asserted that after her research “I wasn’t only thinking about research from different perspectives, I was also introduced to new cultures, to new ways of thinking.”

Villalpando advises students interested in research to “get involved,” by contacting professors and looking for opportunities. She says that researching abroad helped her to assess her options moving forward in her career. “I think it helped me a lot to know that I could continue my education anywhere,” she said.

Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student

FRI Students Complete a 10-Week Summer Research Program

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Lyndsey Wilson (sixth from left), with her University of Washington lab group.

This year two FRI students were awarded and completed the prestigious HHMI Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). Lyndsey Wilson and Aliyah Encarnacion worked for over 10 weeks in graduate research labs this summer, doing experiments that they proposed and designed.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and length:

Aliyah Encarnacion, a junior in Neuroscience, worked at the Janelia Research Campus under Dr. Karel Svoboda to analyze the paralemniscal pathway (associated with sense of touch) in mice. Encarnacion is currently a peer mentor in the Biobricks for Molecular Machines Stream, led by Drs. Karen Browning and Soo-Hyun Yang. She has also done research in the labs of Dr. Michael Mauk and Dr. Michael Drew, both located in the university’s Center for Learning and Memory.

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Aliyah Encarnacion with her EXROP Research Poster

How did you like the research?

In my case I got to completely create my own project. The lab I worked with specialized in looking at the lemniscal pathway, which is known to be involved in tactile perceptions such as whisker movements and interacting with stimuli in mice and other animals. They looked at it in terms of the somatosensory sensations.

It really required me to think logically and outside of the box; it was like building a project from scratch. I got to do all the things hands on, train the mice myself, do the neural recordings myself.

Who did you work with?

I worked with a postdoc, his name is Diego Gutnisky. He helped me figure out the questions I wanted to ask, and to understand a lot of the literature I was going to have to read to understand the project and what I wanted to do. He gave me lots of great pointers, and was always there every step of the way when I needed him.

I worked with a lot of the trainers to make sure that I was taking care of the mice correctly and doing everything that I needed to do, and I also got to work with my PI a lot. Karel Svoboda was always around and always available to answer questions: if there was some literature I didn’t understand he would sit down with me and read through the paper together, and one of the days I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the oxygen tanks and he came and fumbled with it for me.

It was such a nurturing and encouraging environment, even though you’re surrounded by grad students and post-docs and PI’s who’ve done so much with their research and their careers, they make the environment so encouraging that you don’t even notice that you’re at the bottom of the pond, swimming around with all the bigger fish.

What did you work on?

Svoboda’s lab focusses on areas that surround ALM and looks into the somatosensory and motor cortices and things like that as opposed to looking at the cerebellum and the hippocampus, which are main areas that people like to focus on. It was a completely different brain region that I got to study. So now I’ve gotten to work with the cerebellum, done hippocampal studies, and now I’ve worked with the Zona incerta, which literally means the ‘zone of uncertainty,’ because no one knows what it does.

What are your plans for the future?

Before getting [to Janelia] I’d pretty much decided that I was going to do an MD with a research focus, but talking with Karel and Diego, they’ve been very encouraging and have given me some insight on maybe pursuing the MD/PhD, because it would give me more of an advantage if I did want to do clinical research.

I’m leaning towards doing clinical research and maybe interacting with patients as well. I think being able to do something like that would be really fulfilling, because I’d get to take the research that I’m doing and these patients and apply it on a larger level than if I was in the lab working by myself.

What inspired you to do research?

I’ve always been really fascinated with medicine; my dad was a medic in the army, and so I’d get to go to work with him sometimes, and see a lot of the things he got to do, and I’d watch a lot of discovery health channel before it became the Oprah Winfrey network, which we don’t talk about that [laughter]. During my senior year I got to do an interesting project where I looked at neurodegenerative diseases.

What advice would you give to students interested in research?

My best advice would be to dive in, really take an opportunity to discover if that’s for you. A lot of the time students wait until their third year to finally get into research and realize that they hate it. Try to find something that you’re passionate about and excited about, and give it a shot. Who knows, you might find a project you really like and can really get far with it.

Is there anything you want to add?

I’m really grateful for all those who helped me get to where I am right now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Lyndsey Wilson, a junior in Cell and Molecular Biology, worked in the lab of Dr. Keiko Torii at the University of Washington, under Post-Doc Dr. Aarthi Putarjunan. She has experience as a student and a peer mentor in the Epidermal Cell Fates and Pathways stream, with RE Dr. Tony Gonzalez and PI Dr. Alan Lloyd, working to understand pigment gene regulation in the Arabidopsis plant.

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Lyndsey Wilson (left) enjoying Seattle, Wash.

So, how’d it go, did you enjoy it?

Oh yeah, Seattle was fabulous, beautiful place. They don’t have air conditioning which is really weird. But, it was fabulous. I researched pretty much all day every day. I was usually in lab about 8:30 to 6:30 or 7:30 every day.

What was your research project?

Well, basically I was working on epidermal cell differentiation in plants, specifically the lab I was working in focused on stomata differentiation, which are like the little pores on the bottoms of the plants that allow for gas exchange.

I was working on a specific protein called SCRM, which is a transcription factor. I was working on determining the role of the C terminal domain of that protein in the differentiation pathway.

Did you work specifically with Dr. Torii?

I did talk to her, she was very interested in what I was doing, and she was definitely on top of knowing how much progress I was making and the results I had. But I worked very closely with a post-doc in her lab (Dr. Aarthi Putarjunan).

How did this summer affect how you look at your major and future careers?

It just strengthened my resolve to stick with what I’ve got going now. I want to be a Ph.D. scientist someday, that’s the dream.

How did your work with the FRI help you with this research?

Well, Fri is the only experience before this that I ever had with research, so it gave me the baseline and the techniques needed to work in a ‘real world’ lab. It gave me the lab problem solving skills that I needed.

What did you learn that affected you the most?

Basically, ten weeks is not a long time. In terms of research, it’s not a long time at all. You hit snags, you tend to be a little bit more ambitious with the projects you want to get done in the time you have. But, ultimately, if you’re willing to put in the effort for it, you can get feasible results through the program. If you’re really really lucky.

Would you recommend research programs like this one to other undergrads?

Oh, absolutely. EXROP tends to be really selective, but if you can get nominated and get accepted, do it. Don’t ever turn it down!

What was your favorite moment from this summer?

I guess when I looked in my yeast plates, and I knew I had results. That I hadn’t just wasted my summer, spotting yeast on a plate.

How long did it take?

For spotting yeast? Considering the amount I did, it sometimes took me four hours straight, to make all my stuff.

I hope that you get to do more stuff like this.

I might be going back next summer. EXROP gives you the opportunity to do a capstone if you want to go back and your mentor wants to have you back and has the space and everything.

Interview conducted by Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student