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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Students Apprentice in Bio Research Labs

(Top to Bottom) Nlilsa Vale, Kieran Ryan, Phillip Kyrakakis

It’s 10:30 PM Saturday, and UMB senior, Phillip Kyriakakis is at work-but he’s not taking restaurant orders or parking cars. He’s in a lab on the third floor of McCormack, fine-tuning a gel to test if his antibodies adhere to a certain fruit fly species. This is his work-study job, and what he does is “figure out how to make antibody, produce it, and purify it,” he says.

Kyriakakis is both part-time lab assistant for cell biology professor Veraksa and full-time student. “What I’m doing is kind of like a co-op program, like at Northeastern,” he says. Previously, he worked at two biotech companies and did internships at Boston University, but,”This job is better experience than anything else I’ve done,” he says.

This year, more than a dozen undergraduate science majors have made their way into professors research labs, working 10 to 25 hours a week during the semester and full-time over vacations and summers. They are paid from professors’ research grants or from work-study or a combination of both. They work alongside graduate students, present research at scientific meetings, and acquire bread and butter research skills that are much in demand at the region’s biotechnology firms.

The techniques Kyriakakis uses to develop antibodies, for example, are employed anytime a researcher targets a protein for study. In the past 10 months, he has learned how to insert a protein’s genetic sequence into E. coli bacteria, make multiple DNA copies, isolate the protein and make it soluble, get it injected into guinea pigs, separate pure antibody from guinea pig blood, and do Western blots tests.

Not all student lab assistants start with as much experience as Kyriakakis. Senior Nilsa Vale sought a lab job precisely because she wanted to expand her limited lab skills. “I was always anxious in the labs in my courses, and I knew I needed more experience,” she says. She plans to teach high school biology.

Working in Professor Linda Huang’s lab, Vale studies a yeast gene responsible for making the spore wall. It’s common to study a growth-regulatory gene-understanding how a cell regulates normal growth shreds light on abnormal growth such as cancer. She’s paid from both the McNair Fellows program and from Huang’s grant.

Typical of genetic research, Vale’s work is extremely specialized. She focuses on a small portion of one end of a growth protein. Because its gene sequence is found in growth proteins in all types of organisms, it’s possibly the crucial part. Vale is on her way to validating this hypothesis. She has genetically engineered mutated strains of the yeast and showed that they don’t make spores, presumably because the sequence that she deliberately eliminated is the essential element.

Kieran Ryan’s lab work is also state of the art. One of six students in Professor Rick Kesseli’s plant genetics lab, Ryan is looking for differences-genetic markers-between two types of double-sexed plants. He pools genetic material from many individual plants, then runs gels to look for dissimilar bands of protein.

It’s painstaking work. After more than six months, he’s run over 100 tests using a random amplified polymorphic DNA procedure. “So far I’ve found one marker. Kesseli says you’d expect to find more,” he says, so now he’s tinkering with all phases of the process. Students go through informal channels to find lab jobs. Ryan got his by becoming acquainted with Kesseli. Kyriakakis offered to help Professor Veraksa set up the lab, “I put together the chairs,” he says. To land her position, Vale says, “I was kind of hinting until Professor Huang asked, ‘Are you interested?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely!'” In spite of the long and irregular hours – some experiments take 12 hours says Vale – the lab positions are high points of college. “In these jobs, you are able to show you can do something,” says Kyriakakis. Adds Vale, “Get in the lab, the sooner, the better!”