Making a Difference in Research
by Rachel L. Pierce
When she’s not in the classroom, biology senior Lesley Abraham can be found most days in Brandt Schneider’s genetics lab at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC). She has been conducting basic research as an undergraduate for three years under Schneider, who is an associate professor of cell biology and biochemistry at TTUHSC.
“One of the things we’re really interested in is understanding the molecular and genetic causes of aging,” Schneider said. “We’ve identified genes that actually control how long cells live, but we don’t know the mechanism of how life span is modulated, and that’s what we’re really interested in studying.”
Abraham and other student researchers in Schneider’s lab contribute basic research on the interconnections of cell growth, cell size and aging. Basic research, also called pure research, uncovers why or how things happen; that information can then be used to guide further investigations and clinical trials as well as translational research – which focuses on practical applications, like treatment therapies for cancer patients.
“If we can elucidate the molecular mechanisms that regulate the aging process, it could lead to new therapeutic targets that enhance senescence in tumor cells and promote regeneration of damaged tissue,” Abraham said. “We are slowly filling in the missing puzzle pieces and figuring out how cell size, cell growth and aging interact. With an improved understanding of aging, scientists can come up with better ways for treating cancer and other age-related diseases.”
Part of a Team
Abraham is always on her feet when she’s working in the lab – whether that involves washing beakers, preparing slides, or peering down a microscope – though she doesn’t seem to mind it. She’s focused on obtaining results that her group could use in its next publication.
“Our lab has made an interesting observation about the proliferative capacity and the rate at which cells age and how they both relate to cell size,” Abraham said. “One of the main things that I do is isolate and identify cell-size mutants in Saccharomyces cerevisiae and then make mutant strains that we further investigate and see how the gene deletions interact with each other and their effect on cell size and aging.”
Meet the Researcher
Brandt Schneider is an associate professor of Cell Biology & Biochemistry at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.
Schneider's lab consists of undergraduate and graduate researchers and is focused on using genetic, biochemical and molecular tools to investigate the intricate connection between cellular proliferation, cell size and aging.
If need be, Abraham also has the flexibility to assist her lab mates. Unlike many other labs that focus on independent projects, Schneider manages his with a team-centric approach. The lab contributes to one project at a time, and every student in the lab knows how to perform each other’s tasks. Schneider’s management style allows Abraham and her lab mates to cultivate a well-rounded skill set.
“Some labs have everybody work on completely separate projects; I have a different philosophy,” Schneider said. “I think we’re more like a football team or basketball team, and we’re all parts of co-op, working toward a common goal: understanding the genetic causes of aging.” He added that the reward is greater when his students undertake a project together, rather than separately. “I think everybody gets more out of it if they’re part of the wheel. If everyone’s project is on ‘an island,’ a lot of those won’t work, and isolation can make science more frustrating and difficult to troubleshoot. There’s a lot of disappointment and failure in science, so we all share all of our failures and all our successes.”
“We’re also a lot closer because of how much we get to interact,” Abraham added.
She likes Schneider’s group-centered strategy. She believes that her broad skill set has helped her greatly during her undergraduate years and will continue to benefit her in the future.
Abraham will be earning her bachelor’s degree in cell and molecular biology in the spring of 2012. She intends to continue her studies in a medical scientist training program, which combines the curriculum of an M.D. program with a Ph.D. program and confers both degrees upon graduation. From there, she would like to be involved in pediatric oncology translational research.
“Kids are so optimistic and resilient,” she said. “It’s like one day they’re under the weather from chemotherapy, but then the next day they just want to play around like a normal kid. Working with pediatric cancer patients puts your problems into perspective, in the sense that what’s going on in your life is nowhere near a child having to face cancer. And if they can continue to smile, then I think we should be able to do the same in our own lives.”
Abraham says she was inspired to pursue a career in cancer research when she was a volunteer at the Children’s Medical Center in Dallas during high school. She was able to interact with patients who suffered from a range of ailments but says the children with cancer left the deepest impression on her experience.
Making her Mark as an Undergraduate Researcher
Abraham plans to apply to a medical scientist training program. The programs are ideally suited for those with an interest in translational research as they focus on transitioning students from the bench – in the lab – to the bedside.
Video produced by Scott Irlbeck, Office of Communications & Marketing.
Originally from Arlington, Abraham followed her older brother, Chris, to Texas Tech and then into undergraduate research.
“In high school I had seen what he had been doing here at Texas Tech, and so I got interested in doing undergraduate research, too,” Abraham said. “He actually got me connected with Dr. Michael San Francisco and got me into his lab as a freshman.”
To leverage her interest in oncology, Abraham applied and was accepted to the Texas Tech University/Howard Hughes Medical Institute (TTU/HHMI) Undergraduate Research Scholar Program. She then interviewed with Schneider and has been working with him ever since.
“Doing science teaches you the scientific method, and you can apply it to almost every aspect of your life,” Abraham said. “If you can get the scientific method down, I think that you can do almost anything because it teaches you about the importance of perseverance. Undergraduate research has developed my critical thinking skills, written and oral communication skills, and it’s pushed me outside my boundaries in the fact that you have to ask questions, and you have to make yourself uncomfortable to get more familiar with the research that you are doing.”
While her time as an undergraduate researcher draws to a close, Abraham appears focused and ready to put in the long hours needed to carry her through a medical scientist training program and closer to a career in children’s cancer research.
More about TTU/HHMI Undergraduate Research Scholar Program
The TTU/HHMI Science Education Program is part of the Center for the Integration of Science Education & Research at Texas Tech. The Center was established in 1992 through funding from HHMI. The research experience benefits undergraduate students with the following possible opportunities:
- Earning money while gaining valuable career-related science, technology and science education experiences
- Working year-round or during the summer with mentor faculty in scientific research labs
- Involvement in service projects with other undergraduate students
- Publishing in peer-reviewed journals before graduation
- Traveling and presenting at state, national and international scientific meetings
Apply Now: New Scholar Application
Rachel L. Pierce is a Senior Editor in the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Images courtesy Neal Hinkle.