Student researchers travel with faculty every semester to academic and association conferences around the state. Students who attended the Texas Genetics Society meeting share their perspectives.
Dr. David Aiello, associate professor of biology, attended the Texas Genetics Society annual meeting at Texas A&M University with eight of his students: Aarthi Kannan ’19, Keara Malone ’19, Sarah Smith ’19, Pranavya Manickavelu ’20, Shreya Uppala ’20, Mandy Eckhardt ’21, Paul Mpunga ’21, and Sita Ramasamy ’21. The students all presented research at the meeting. Keara Malone received the award for best undergraduate oral presentation for her work.
Those meetings, the professor said, expose students to the wide range of disciplinary approaches that genetics researchers take in science, approaches that can vary widely in scope from human health and medicine to the inheritance patterns of specific traits, to the structure and function of individual genes in model organisms such as yeast and fruit flies. Distinguished scientists Dr. Bruce Beutler, Professor and Director of the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense at UTSW Medical Center and awardee of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and Dr. Brendan Lee, Professor and Chair of the Molecular and Human Genetics Program in the Baylor College of Medicine, and recipient of the society’s 2019 Barbara Bowman Distinguished Texas Geneticist Award, were among the speakers students heard.
Aiello said students benefit from this conference by not only hearing about others’ work, but also having the opportunity to present their own work to other researchers from institutions. The Texas Genetics Society particularly encourages trainees at all levels—undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs and technicians—to present work in both poster and oral platform sessions.
Austin College students have been particularly successful in their presentations, having won the award for Best Undergraduate Oral Presentation the last three years, and in four of the last five. “My colleagues continue to be impressed with the quality of Austin College students and their ability to present their science,” Aiello said.
This spring, Austin College students presented four poster presentations and three oral presentations (of only four undergraduate oral presentations at the conference), and all received high marks.
Keara Malone ’19 received the award for best undergraduate oral presentation for her work “Utilizing a transcriptomic approach to analyze the spt4∆-mediated rescue of a pgm2∆ strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae.” Authors are Keara D. Malone (1), Spencer L. Nystrom (2), and David P. Aiello (1).
Malone said presenting at TGS is quite different than presenting here on campus because the audience is “more technically savvy and definitely less familiar, which can make presenting much more intimidating!” She said since many of the presentations are designed for graduate students, post-docs, and other professional scientists, some talks can be difficult to follow, but that it is exciting to see a topic she has studied and understands.
Malone said attending, presenting, and being honored was definitely cool, but reminded her “that I wouldn’t be at that level of presentation without the guidance, mentorship, and opportunity I’ve received at Austin College,” she said. “I’m sure that my fellow presenters made that decision very difficult for the award committee, because Austin College students really have an eloquent way of communicating their science to a broader audience. It’s awesome to hear that my peers and my own accomplishments are so impressive to other scientists. It’s really cool to have won this award, because it shows me that my Austin College education is visibly making an impact on those around me.”
Upon graduation, Malone hopes to work as a research technician and explore different types of molecular biology research. Down the road a bit, she plans to earn a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology.
While working in the lab with Aiello for five semesters, Malone has taken a variety of Biology courses related to genetics. For the past four semesters, she has been involved in the same project in the lab, working with a gene that rescues the pgm2∆ strain of yeast and trying to understand how that rescue works.
She has made that project the topic of her honors thesis. She has collaborated with alumnus Spencer Nystrom to use bioinformatics to take a new look at the yeast strains, and understand how changes in transcription globally might affect the growth of the strains. “Overall,” Keara wrote, “we seek to find a link between calcium homeostasis and carbohydrate metabolism. Our strain phenotypes resemble those of human disorders, especially galactosemia and Alzheimer’s disease. Thus, our work could potentially inform at a basic level how carbohydrate metabolism and calcium homeostasis are linked and respond to each other, which is currently not well understood.”
Comments from Other Presenters:
“The presentations were each only about 12 minutes but they were packed with so much information and skillfully presented,” Kannan said.” She said she benefited from recognizing the need “to ramp up my presentation skills” as she continues her work. After graduation, the biology major will join a Ph.D. program at UTMB to study viruses.
After assisting another student in research as a sophomore, Manickavelu began her independent research last fall. She says her passion for biology was sparked as a freshman in her Cell Biology course with Aiello. “Research is a completely different world,” she said, “and it hardly ever reads smoothly like a textbook. My experiences in the lab have made me persistent in my approach to learn more about biology, especially yeast!” She said the conference increased her confidence in presenting her work and exposed her to other types of genetics research. “I had the chance to further develop my knowledge in molecular biology, pushing me to ask more questions, and motivating me to continue my research within the larger frame of genetics.”
She joined Aiello’s research lab in January and hopes to attend medical school upon graduation. She enjoyed presenting and saw it as a means to improve her skills and knowledge, since presenters had to be prepared for any questions. Though some of the presentations were hard for her to understand, she knows she hasn’t had the research experience to understand more fully. “This definitely inspired me to continue my research at Austin College, and I am very excited to attend more research conferences!” she said.
“The conference was a great way to be introduced to the world of genetics,” she said. “Listening to all of the presentations was very intimidating at first. However, as the conference progressed, I continued to become more motivated and excited about my future. Listening to the presentations really encouraged me to want to keep learning about genetics and biology.” She plans to attend graduate school and to pursue research as a career.
“Examining the effects of overexpression of genes on the p17p07 plasmid in Saccharomyces cerevisiae mutants lacking PGM2”
Paul plans to attend medical school in hopes of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. His classes with Aiello spurred his interest in research, and he joined the Aiello lab in summer 2018, assisting others with research. He worked alongside Eckhardt on the presentation above. He also worked with Kannan, gathering data for her honors project, and said he has learned many skills that benefited his other science work.
Student research is an important element of learning at Austin College. Each spring, the College holds the Austin College Student Scholarship Conference, which includes research presentations as well as performances and exhibitions of creative work.