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Student engages with hands-on learning in genetic testing

By Allison Brace ’22

Katie Parker has spent most of her four years at the University of Dayton searching for a chemical to minimize the effects of brain cancer.

Parker, a senior biology major from Toledo, Ohio, has remained on campus last two summers to participate in undergraduate research through the Integrative Science and Engineering (ISE) Center’s Summer CoRPs and Dean’s Summer Fellowship programs. The ISE Summer CoRPs (Collaborative Research Projects) provides undergraduates with fellowships to conduct full-time, interdisciplinary summer research in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics. The Dean’s Summer Fellowship program provides an opportunity for College of Arts and Sciences undergraduates to conduct summer research in any academic discipline under the guidance of a faculty mentor.

“Katie is an exemplar of the ‘learn, lead and serve’ mission of UD,” said Doug Daniels, ISE Center executive director and research professor of chemistry.

Parker became a biology major with the goal of pursuing a career in genetic counseling.

“I have cystic fibrosis, which is a genetic disorder, so I was actually introduced to genetic counseling through a first-hand perspective,” she said.

Parker joined the genetic research lab of Madhuri Kango-Singh, associate professor in the Department of Biology, during her sophomore year, even though she had only completed one genetics course. Initially, Parker’s lab skills were limited, but through her participation in the 2018 ISE Summer CoRPs she was able to fully develop her skill set. Now in her senior year, she is co-leading a project in the Kango-Singh lab with another student, Jordan Terschluse.

Her project studies fruit flies as a model organism with the hope to determine a chemical that reduces brain cancer without compromising other parts of the organism. The flies’ genes are manipulated using RNA interference to eliminate a specific gene to mimic a common mutation found in brain cancer. The mutation affects Pten, a tumor suppressor gene that normally restricts tumors from growing. When Pten is mutated, in combination with other tumor promoting alterations (e.g., oncogenic Ras), the organism displays a brain cancer similar to humans.

“We’ve seen different kinds of results like enhancements where the tumor grew even more, suppression where the tumor shrank, and we’ve also seen no effects,” Parker said.

Being selected for ISE program after her sophomore year pushed Parker forward in terms of research and also provided her with a professional skill set.

The integrative collaboration the Summer CoRPs provides builds on the University’s idea of community as it allows participants to build peer and faculty relationships while furthering their research and professional skills.

“As my first fellowship, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect; however, we participated in a lot of cohort activities within our group,” Parker said. “It was nice because it was more than just presentation; it was more interactive and integrated with other people in the fellowship.”

Daniels encouraged Parker to participate in the ISE program which has been very advantageous for her professional growth.

“Katie is motivated by a clarity of personal mission and vocation. She not only has an outstanding academic record, but has gained a substantial amount of experiential learning through sustained research in genetics and disease biology,” he said.

Parker credits Kango-Singh for being an “amazing” resource throughout her time at the University.

“Katie is a very talented student who is motivated to do research,” Kango-Singh said. “She has worked with me ever since she was a sophomore at the University, both during the school year and the summer. She is a great member of our group as she manages to do her own research and also train other undergraduate students in the lab.”

In addition to her leadership role in the lab, Parker also is working on an honors thesis that branches off of her lab work. She is focusing on a second mutation most commonly found in human brain cancers called Epidermal Growth Factor receptor mutation. This mutation together with other alterations, mimics brain cancer within the flies by interfering with tumor suppression. In this instance, she is stimulating cancer with a gene mutation that is constantly “on.”

Parker was able to further her honors thesis research through the Dean’s Summer Fellowship program, which provided her with research funding during summer 2019.

Parker presented her research at the Brother Joseph W. Stander Symposium with her lab group during both her sophomore and junior years, and she expects to present again this year. The 2020 Stander Symposium is Wednesday, April 22. She also has the opportunity to present her honors thesis at the Honors Symposium on March 6 in Kennedy Union.

“A big thing at the University of Dayton is that people are able to get very involved, not only because of its size but also how personal the classroom settings can be,” Parker said. “What I’ve noticed is a lot of the professors here are just very receptive, which I think can be hard to find at other schools. It’s just very accommodating here and I have had an incredibly rewarding experience.”

For more information, please visit the ISE Summer CoRPs program, Kango-Singh Lab and Department of Biology websites.

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