Dr. Williams and student in a lab
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Student Experiences

For many Providence College students, conducting research is an essential piece of their undergraduate experience.

Students from many academic disciplines often present their diverse research on campus, at other higher-education institutions, and at regional and national conferences.

Here are a few.

Douglas Biancur headshotDouglas Biancur ’13 (Wallingford, Conn.)

Research project title: Who is Next in Line for the Throne?

A description of Douglas’ research project

Understanding the social interaction and lineage of the queen in a nest of wasps (polistes erythrocephalus) gives great insight into their social hierarchy. The queen is the most important member of the wasp community responsible for looking after the nest and giving rise to viable offspring. Therefore, it is important to understand which wasp will take over once the queen is removed. This will help to unravel the mystery behind wasp behavior and allow keen insight into the eusocial interactions. In order to carry out this research, queens are removed from the nests and the wasps are examined through genetic analysis. Wasp DNA is extracted from the members of a nest and PCR (polymerase chain reaction) is run to amplify sections of the DNA. By looking at allele frequency in each wasp, relatedness is determined and this gives indication to which offspring come from which queen. This process in conjunction with an array of microscopy techniques will allow us to answer the question that is “which wasp will take over once the queen is removed and what is the relationship to the previous queen?”

How did you become interested in the subject matter?

I have always been interested in doing biological research and research with Dr. Elisabeth Arevalo, associate professor of biology, especially appealed to me because it combines both field and laboratory elements. The actual field work of collecting the wasps and nests for analysis is exciting and a great opportunity to observe wasp behavior in the natural environment. The laboratory work is also a great because we have the opportunity to become very familiar with a number of different biological methods, including genetic analysis, PCR, and confocal microscopy.

As an undergraduate, what has conducting this type of high-level research meant to your experience at PC?

The research has been a very important part of my learning and growing as a biologist at PC.  The work has greatly contributed to my ability to design and carry out laboratory procedures.  The professors have been very encouraging and are always there to help in any way they can, while allowing us to operate freely in the lab and getting a true hands-on experience. Having the ability to work in this type of laboratory setting with real hands-on experience has been an extremely important part of my time at PC.

Chris Brennan ’13 (Litchfield, N.H.)

Research project title: The Characterization of a Null Allele of the hfq Gene in the Dissimilatory Metal Reducing Bacterium Shewanella oneidensis. S. oneidensis

A description of Chris’ research project

Shewanella oneidensis. S. oneidensis or, “Shewy” as our lab affectionately calls it, has the capability to use heavy metals as terminal electron acceptors when it is grown under anaerobic conditions. Like humans, Shewy prefers to use oxygen, when available, when it respires. But, when oxygen is absent, Shewy switches to use any heavy metals that are available. Our lab studies the genes that are involved in this process of anaerobic respiration and heavy metal utilization. Specifically, we have chosen to identify and study novel genes that encode small non-coding RNA’s that may be involved in anaerobic respiration. The hfq gene, which I study, encodes a protein that assists in the function of these small non-coding RNA’s. What I have done since I began working in Dr. Brett Pellock’s lab is to create a mutant version of Shewy by deleting the hfq gene from its genome. By doing this, we are able to understand how the hfq gene works by observing differences in growth and respiration capabilities between the hfq mutant and wild type (normal) Shewy. So far, we have found that the hfq mutant is slow growing, sensitive to stress, and deficient in its ability to utilize heavy metals.

How did you become interested in the subject matter?

I had Dr. Pellock, assistant professor of biology, for my first-semester, freshman General Biology course. He mentioned his research briefly in class, and it caught my attention because of my interest in microbiology and because I had recently learned about small non-coding RNA’s, which have become a very popular area of biological research within the past few years. It took until I actually started working at the bench, and especially my first summer working at PC, to catch the research bug. Actually learning the techniques required to clone and delete a gene, which seemed like things of science fiction just three months prior, was fascinating to me. The fact that I was deleting a gene, which no one has previously done in our organism, means that I am contributing to human knowledge in a real way, no matter how small it may be. Because of its capability to use heavy metal, Shewy has been implicated for use in bioremediation and microbial fuel cells. Bioremediation is the process by which Shewy is able to clean up water supplies by using toxic heavy metals, which are common drinking water contaminants. My work with hfq is one of the many pieces of the puzzle that will allow us to fully understand how Shewy uses these metals in anaerobic respiration, which is turning out to be an extremely useful process in human applications.

As an undergraduate, what has conducting this type of high-level research meant to your experience at PC?

Doing research has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my undergraduate experience. Being at PC has given me the opportunity to conduct my own research project under the personal guidance of my professor. Being able to do this as an undergraduate is an experience that is largely unique to PC because we are a smaller, undergraduate institution, but we still have the benefit of premier research facilities and a dedicated faculty. I have had the privilege of presenting my research at URI, Harvard, and, this spring, I will be presenting at a national conference for experimental sciences in San Diego. I have made some of my best friends through research, and I find that actually conducting research is an unparalleled reinforcement of the material that we learn in the classroom. The faculty members in the biology department encourage every major to try research, regardless of their plans for after PC. Dr. Pellock was extremely receptive to have me work in his lab and has been a great mentor for me over the past two years.

What are your future goals?

My plans are to attend graduate school and pursue a Ph.D. in biology. I have not yet decided what to focus on because I love the work I do now in microbiology, but there are many other areas of research, such as cancer, that I find fascinating.

Christina D’Agostino ’14 (Meridan, Conn.)

Research Project Title: Identification of sRNA Genes in the Dissimilatory Metal-Reducing Bacterium Shewanella oneidensis.

A description of Christina’s research project

My research involves working with the small RNA ryhB, in Shewanella oneidensis, a homolog to that of E.coli. I work alongside Matt Goulet ’12, and we are verifying the expression of ryhB, which is regulated by iron-deficiency, and the subsequent targets of the sRNA using a variety of techniques. What’s interesting about the organism that we work with is that it is found most prominently in lakes (isolated from Lake Oneida, N.Y.), and under oxidative stress, it reduces toxic heavy metals such as Fe(III), Cr(VI), and U(VI) to their less-toxic states. This provides a potential bioremediative use of our organism.

How did you become interested in the subject matter?

Having Dr. Brett Pellock, assistant professor of biology, for General Biology, I became interested in his research during my freshman year and wanted to learn more about what small RNAs were and what their functions were in an organism, such as Shewanella oneidensis. Considering that this organism can potentially have a bioremediative use via the reduction of toxic metals is great, and making any contribution to that field is rewarding.

As an undergraduate, what has conducting this type of high-level research meant to your experience at PC?

Research has been a rewarding experience because I have been able to immerse myself in new laboratory techniques and protocols, as well as learn how to present the material that I have been working on to the rest of the scientific community. Through lab-conducted journal sessions, I have also increased my knowledge about other fields of research related to small RNAs and beyond.

What are your future goals?

I am very interested in medicine and am planning on applying to medical school within my time at PC.

Matt Hurton ’13 (Wakefield, Mass.)

Research project title: Genome Reduction in Yeast Involves Programmed Cell Death

A description of Matt’s research project

My research is focused on the process of genome reduction in various types of yeast, and whether or not this reduction is accompanied by programmed cell death. Put simply, genome reduction, much like what occurs constantly in sex cells, is an important focus in the development of cancerous cells and has been shown by our research to be accompanied by programmed cell death. The current project, which I have been working on since my fall semester of freshman year, involves using media that induces genome reduction in different types of yeast, including tetraploid cells (containing four DNA “copies”) and diploid cells (containing two), and running various tests to look for distinctive apoptotic cell death activity. Recently, another student and I have worked with yeasts with deletion mutations in genes for “caspases,” which are involved in programmed cell death, and checked to see if the cell death seen previously is then eliminated.

How did you become interested in the subject matter?

I have always found the sciences particularly interesting, and when I heard about the research opportunities in Father Nic’s lab I was very excited to contribute to his work. That contribution may seem fairly small, but as Father Nic told me one day in the lab, this sort of work makes a student one of the most informed people in the world on that particular topic. In a broader scope, programmed cell death is a vital function in many biological processes, especially in cancer, and I am grateful to be able to make a contribution, however small, to human knowledge on that subject.

What are your future goals?

My current goal is to get a Ph.D. in the life sciences, particularly in some sort of molecular biology or biochemistry. I would love to continue research as a profession, or possibly teach at a university level.

Benjamin Lichtenfels ’13 (East Greenwich, R.I.)

Research project title: A Gain-of-Function Screen for Transcription Factors that Regulate the Response of Candida albicans Yeast Cells to Sulforaphane

A description of Ben’s research project

I work with sulforaphane–an anti-cancerous drug found in broccoli. The issue with cancer is that mutations arise during cell growth, causing mutant cells, which can be dangerous to the organism. The cell normally controls this by using its own signals, which kill the mutant cells. This is called programmed cell death (PCD). Cancerous cells are ones that do not respond to PCD, and, therefore, the cells keep growing without a response to any of the PCD signals. My research is to find how the mechanism of sulforaphane kills the cancerous cells and by which pathway. My work deals with yeast. I test the drug against all these specific mutant yeasts and see which ones are killed or survive doses of the drug.

How did you become interested in the subject matter?

I first got interested in research when, in the first day of class freshman year, Father Nic (Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., associate professor of biology) told us about his work. From there, I relentlessly asked if I could join his lab. He finally caved in the spring of 2010. I think it’s amazing that within an everyday food there is the potential to combat cancer. Although my work is only a small part of a big struggle, it’s important because it broadens our knowledge of cancer.

What has the opportunity to conduct meaningful research meant to you as an undergraduate?

Looking back to my freshman year, I never would have suspected that I would have my own project, which is amazing as an undergraduate. This has definitely increased my knowledge, not only about cancer and the organisms I am working with, but about how to deal with the issues that inevitably come up while conducting research.

What are your future goals?

While I am still at PC, I would like to finish my work and hopefully have it published in a journal. Beyond that, I hope to remain in science, potentially in medicine or in a research field.

Emily Roblee ’13 (Bedford, N.H.)

Research project title: Genome Reduction in Yeast Involves Programmed Cell Death

A description of Emily’s research project

I’ve been working on this project since September 2010 when I joined the student lab run by Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P. Dr. Richard Bennett, a biology professor at Brown University, has done a considerable amount of research involving yeast strains grown on sporulation media, a type of media that causes yeast cells to lose copies of their DNA. When he came to present his research at a seminar at Providence College, Dr. Bennett mentioned that when cells underwent this DNA loss, or “genome reduction,” most of them subsequently died. Along with Matt Hurton, another student in our lab, I’ve been working to determine the mechanism of cell death that these yeast cells undergo after this sporulation-media induced genome reduction. Our hypothesis is that this cell death is programmed cell death, also referred to as “cell suicide”–a deliberate, regulated pathway set in motion by the cell as a response to certain signals. To study the mechanism of death we use different assays on both normal light microscopes and on the confocal microscope, which is really exciting because we are one of the few undergraduate institutions privileged enough to have a confocal!

How did you become interested in the subject matter?

I’ve always been a very scientifically minded person, so I became interested in research as a way to apply what I learned about biology in the classroom to practical lab work. I find it really amazing that as an undergraduate I can work to discover new scientific information and add to the bank of scientific knowledge.

As an undergraduate, what has conducting this type of high-level research meant to your experience at PC?

The most important benefit of participating in research as an undergraduate for me is learning to think like a scientist. I’m definitely a perfectionist, and I always want to find the “right answer” or get results that are completely black and white. My research experience and Fr. Nic’s guidance have really taught me that this is not the way science works–all you can do is design experiments, observe the organisms in your experiments, determine the results, and then interpret the results according to the trends you observe. It can be very frustrating, because biological organisms don’t always behave as you expect for reasons you might not understand, but it can also be very rewarding when you finally obtain conclusive results!

What are your future goals?

I plan to continue my education either in medical or graduate school.

Zachary Sexton ’13 (Westerly, R.I.), biology major

Research project title: Identification of SRNA Genes in the Dissimilatory Metal-Reducing Bacterium Shewanella oneidensis

A description of Zachary’s project

By using an algorithm, we have identified a number of sequences we dubbed ‘putative non-coding RNA,’ or PnR. We detected a large number of these potential RNA sequences, and my personal project is the identification of the targets of PnR1. These RNA strands are interesting because they are not coded for the production of protein. Rather, we believe they have a hand in the bacteria metabolism. We are most especially interested to see how these small RNAs affect the metal reduction function of the bacteria. So far, I’ve been working on this for about a year in Dr. Brett Pellock’s lab.

What has the opportunity to conduct meaningful research meant to you as an undergraduate?

This experience has been very enlightening. It has really informed me of proper scientific protocols and how the scientific community as a whole functions. It has forced me to think critically and scientifically and has given me the opportunity to develop a healthy respect for precision.

What are your future goals?

I am planning to be a high school science teacher. I’m pursuing a program that will allow me to spend two years teaching and then return to school for my master’s degree.