At some point about a year into my biology coursework, I realized that I should be doing research. With co-op approaching, all talk shifted toward gaining skills and experience and being a strong applicant. For Biology majors, relevant experience usually means lab work. I was anxious about my lack of skills, and sought out a Directed Study in the lab of Professor Phyllis Strauss. I spent the spring learning essential laboratory techniques with six other students.
Towards the end of our Directed Study, Professor Strauss introduced a long-term project involving a proto-oncogene called “mdm2″. The “mdm2″ protein is the primary antagonist of a protein called “p53″. DNA damage can lead to unregulated cell division and growth, and ultimately, tumors. When “p53″ senses extensive DNA damage or excessive division, it induces cell death, thereby preventing tumors before they develop. However, the “mdm2″ protein forces the cell to degrade “p53″.
It might seem strange for cells to have mechanisms for destroying “p53″, a protein so important for preventing tumors. However, “mdm2″ has a vital role in vertebrates. There is a time in the life cycle when rapid cell division and differentiation are essential, a time when cell death would be most inconvenient. This time is embryonic development. Studies done on zebrafish have shown that embryos develop normally even without “p53″, but that absence of “mdm2″ results in excessive cell death, preventing development.
The role of “mdm2″ in the embryonic development of zebrafish is the central question of the project I have worked on with Professor Strauss. (As a side note, zebrafish possess most of the same protein classes as humans, but are must easier to study. They are often used as ‘model organisms’ to investigate processes that also occur humans.) To better understand “mdm2″, we are designing experiments where we can manipulate the levels of “mdm2″ and observe the physiological effects in developing zebrafish. The first step of this process has been creating an expression vectors that can increase the amount of “mdm2″.
During the six-month directed study, we completed the very first steps of synthesizing an “mdm2″ expression vector. Afterwards, I chose to continue working in the Strauss lab to advance the project. The Honors Department provided me with the opportunity to apply for an Early Research Grant. I received for the grant, which has helped pay for the supplies used in my project. Science is really more expensive than pop-culture and media would have us believe. I realized this when I began ordering supplies and reagents. I was happy and grateful to receive a grant that would offset the cost my experiments. Truly, a host-lab can start to feel like a team, and I was happy that I could contribute to the Strauss lab team in this way.