August 11, 2017

Student journeys: Passion for research began with strawberries, “Star Trek” and “Gifted Hands”

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Alexa Wade’s passion for research started with a strawberry. Michael Vivian’s started while watching “Star Trek” episodes with his dad. Cameron LaFayette’s began in eighth grade from the movie “Gifted Hands,” the saga of Detroit-born neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

alexa wadeAlexa WadeWade, Vivian and LaFayette — now University of Alabama at Birmingham upperclassmen — pursued their research passions full time this summer as inaugural members of the UAB-Genentech Research Scholars Fellowship Program. The Genentech program awards summer research stipends to students who are first-generation college students and/or from historically underrepresented minority groups, through support from Genentech, a leading biotechnology company in San Francisco.

The three UAB students recently shared their journeys as they presented research findings at the 2017 Summer Expo, where eight Genentech Research Scholars and 164 other student researchers exhibited their work.

First generation

Vivian and LaFayette are of the first generation in their families to go to college.

“My grandfather was a police officer in Miami,” Vivian said, “and my grandmother a high school secretary. My mom and dad want me to work hard and follow my dreams.”

As a youngster, Vivian got science magazines and would try to repeat the experiments. He ran out of science classes to take at Huntsville High School, so he took several courses at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. The rising junior came to UAB for the Personalized Path program in the UAB Honors College.

LaFayette’s father served 26 years in the U.S. Army, retiring as first sergeant.

“I’m a first-generation college student,” said LaFayette, a rising UAB junior in biology in the College of Arts and Sciences who will switch his major to genetics this fall. “After I went to UAB, my mother started college. My parents tell me, ‘We’re really proud of you.’”

LaFayette says he knew in eighth grade that he wanted to be a pediatric neurosurgeon, inspired by the Carson story of operating on twins conjoined at the head. “I did tons of research to see what it would take, and in pursuing that, I found another passion — research.”

Strawberries

Wade, a UAB senior in biology who graduates in December, ran into the strawberry in middle school when a HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology researcher led the students in the isolation of DNA from the red fruit.

michael vivianMichael Vivian“This was a relatively simple experiment, but it sparked my interest in molecular biology,” Wade said. She realized a passion for molecular biology research during her four-year track in biomedical sciences at Bob Jones and James Clemens high schools, in the Huntsville suburb of Madison. Wade then came to UAB for the Science and Technology Honors Program in the UAB Honors College.

For the past 18 months, Wade has been working in the lab of Chad Hunter, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB Department of Medicine’s Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism. Her research is part of an effort to understand the genetic controls that help insulin-producing beta cells develop, mature and function. Both Type 1 and 2 diabetes are characterized by the loss of beta cell function, leading to excessive blood sugar levels.

“We focus on transcriptional regulation of beta cells, as this information can be used for new diabetes therapies, including beta cell regeneration,” Wade said. She hopes her summer research on key beta cell transcription factors and post-natal gene expression in beta cells will lead to her first published paper.

Knockouts

LaFayette spent his summer in the lab of Mick Edmonds, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB Department of Genetics, using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool to try to knock out the gene for a microRNA that contributes to lung cancer. He has generated five candidate knockouts in a cell line, and he next plans to sequence the cell DNAs to measure the precise deletions in each.

“Then we want to go from a cell line to a knockout in mice,” LaFayette said.

Vivian works with Jeremy Day, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB Department of Neurobiology. Vivian spent the summer validating a tool for single-cell RNA sequencing. Using micro-fluidics, he captures individual cells in individual drops, where they are lysed and their messenger RNA is sequenced.

“The idea is to stimulate neurons and then capture them in individual drops,” Vivian said. “Then you can look at the RNA transcripts made.” This opens the window to understanding the activity-dependent responses of neurons. The RNA-sequencing will begin this fall.

Future plans

With the end of college nearing, Wade plans to go to graduate school in biomedical science, “either cell or molecular biology.” LaFayette has his sights set on medicine.

cameron lafayetteCameron LaFayetteAfter thinking about medicine and getting wet-lab experience, Vivian has discovered an interest in computational and theoretical neuroscience. He now wants to go to graduate school, where his research tool will be computer programming, with a focus on data analysis and computational aspects.

“I started as a neuroscience pre-med,” Vivian explained, “but when I took biochemistry and biology, I said, ‘This is interesting, but it isn’t what I want to do in my life.’”

“I don’t want to belong to one category,” Vivian said. “I want to learn from every field.”

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