R. Lee Lyman’s childhood backyard was nestled between a tall plateau and rolling hills of wheat. Growing up in the southeast corner of Washington state, he knew that, if anything, he wanted to spend his life being outside. So when his uncle asked him and his brothers to help him look for buried arrowheads, his parents ushered the boys out to explore. “When you’ve got three boys who are 6, 8, and 10, you want to keep them busy. And that was one way to keep us busy — go dig holes looking for arrowheads.” When Lyman went to Washington State University, memories of those outings were fresh in his mind. By his sophomore year, he was majoring in anthropology. Working one of his first paying jobs as an archaeologist and having just completed a course about how to identify animal bones, Lyman found himself captivated by his ability to explain the bones in archaeological sites.
Doctors Steve and Hannah Alexander, the duo behind the Alexander Lab, have spent the past 26 years at the University of Missouri. The Alexander Lab, founded in 1987, focused on developmental biology until the late nineties. Since then, the lab has studied DNA repair and drug resistance in cancer cells. With their current work, they hope to contribute to our ability to successfully treat cancers of all types, by providing insights into the biological process by which tumors develop resistance to anticancer drugs.
“What does it mean to see an object?” Gavin King’s question at first seems philosophical. During last year’s Biophysics and Your Body summer program, King’s collaborators posed a task for a group of middle school students: determine the contents of a shoebox without opening it. The students were given some materials and left to their creative wills.
For Associate Professor of Biology Lori Eggert, collaboration is at the heart of everything she does. From local to international projects, and even within her lab, collaboration is invaluable. Dr. Eggert’s life and research are a testament to the amazing feats that can be accomplished with coordinated, hard work from many different, devoted sources.
Dawn Cornelison is on a mission to counteract the effects of aging, the effects of muscular dystrophy, and other neuromuscular diseases. The assistant professor of Biological Sciences must first find answers to the crucial questions regarding the robust nature of muscle regeneration.
Solving intellectual puzzles is a rewarding activity for Bruce McClure, MU Professor of Biochemistry, as he seeks to unravel the mystery of plant mating. If McClure and his team of researchers can crack the code and understand how breeding barriers work within plants, they will be one step closer to their goal of “making the world better through agriculture.”
Shubhra Gangopadhyay is the one of the few female faculty at MU’s Center for Micro/Nano Systems and Nanotechnology. She’s also the one in charge of developing the center. In the Electrical and Computer Engineering department, of which Gangopadhyay is the LaPierre Endowed Chair Professor, she is one of three women. “There is a shortage of female scientists and female professors, in general,” Gangopadhyay says. “And in engineering, it is really not good.”
Great celestial bodies populate the solar system. For an untrained eye staring at the heavens, the starlight spectacles and endless seas of blackness are nothing short of a miracle. Researchers, however, have developed mathematical equations that may help us understand such mysteries of the universe. From Isaac Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation to Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the scientific community has paved the way for a greater understanding of the great beyond.
MU biologist Rex Cocroft studies communication, something crucial to life at many levels, as it occurs within a cell, between cells, and between organisms within social groups. "Once we reach the level of communication between individuals," waxes Cocroft, "not only is there the fascinating intellectual challenge of studying communication, but there is also this tremendous aesthetic appeal…. The signals themselves are often beautiful—the songs of whales, the colors of butterfly wings, the scents of flowers." His first calling was that of a musician, so it's perhaps no surprise that Cocroft was drawn to this aspect of biology, and no accident that he enjoys being at MU. "I love it here [in Missouri] in the late summer," he says, "when the katydids and the cicadas are out and there's this din of calling insects."
There are ways in which Matt Gompper’s work is simultaneously disheartening and inspiring. As an associate professor in the Fisheries and Wildlife department, he pursues research that falls into an area of wildlife biology known as conservation biology. That is, he seeks to understand the theoretical and real-world causes that drive animal populations to decline or become extinct. While focusing on animal species on the brink of extinction is surely depressing, his efforts are also aimed at conservation—and that’s the part that is encouraging.
Dr. Lyman demonstrates how using a greater time depth — 10,000 years instead of 30, for example — can better inform scientists dealing with conservation issues.
Dr. Hannah Alexander describes efforts to remedy the “collective failure” of the scientific community to make their findings and advances more understandable to the general public.
Dr. Steve Alexander takes us on a tour, showing us some highlights of the Alexander Lab.
The Alexanders explain the benefits of studying a relatively simple organism—in their case, Dictyostelium discoideum—to learn more about the ways that cells operate.
The Alexanders, whose lab originally studied developmental biology, describe how they were introduced to the chemotherapy drug cisplatin, which changed their course of their research to chemotherapy resistance.
Since its foundation in 1987, the Alexander Lab has shifted from its original focus on developmental biology; it now studies how cells become resistant to chemotherapy drugs.
The Alexanders describe how mutations give cancer cells a growth advantage and why physicians often treat cancer with multiple chemotherapy drugs.
A selection of interviewees from the last 50 features of SyndicateMizzou discusses how they came to be involved in their field.
Dr. King discusses how the tools of physics are applied to biology.
Will describes a recent project exploring the relationship between binge-eating and increased food palatability. Genetics plays a large role in our craving for high-calorie food.
Cornelison’s research examines muscle stem cells in order to uncover the mechanics behind muscle regeneration. Based on her findings, she hopes that other scientists can potentially devise cures for neuromuscular diseases such as dystrophy.
Cornelison mainly conducts research on mice, though her ultimate goal is to understand muscle stem cell behavior in humans. Mice serve as a good model for satellite cell activity because they are mammals with muscles and genes similar to humans.
Cornelison initially started college as a chemistry major, but after taking a biology course she realized her passion was for natural science. Soon afterward, she realized she was hooked on lab work. “I remember the feeling whenever I did an experiment,” she recalls, “and realize that I now know something that no one else in the world knows, and I get to go tell them about it.”
When doing research, Cornelison says, “you have to have a pretty high tolerance for failure bordering on extreme stubbornness… You’ve got to be able to live with not getting things to work all the time.” All of her research is funded by external grants, which means she has to secure external funding in order to pay her fellow researchers, house the lab’s mice, or buy materials. Currently, Cornelison is receiving funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Although Cornelison doesn’t want her research to come to an end anytime soon, she is aiming at discovering information that will help other scientists formulate cures. And even though she almost quit graduate school to become a doctor, Cornelison says she “wouldn’t be doing anything else, regardless of whatever challenges might come up.”
McClure always wanted to help the world through science, but plant genetics wasn’t part of his original grand plan. After college and a environmental biochemistry major, he took a position with a diet geneticist seeking to modify the nutritional value of maize. This job exposed McClure to genetic analysis and helped him realize that he could have an impact on the world through agriculture.
McClure aims to understand how species recognition functions in plants. He sees his work as an intellectual puzzle, and puts much effort into figuring out how these mating mechanisms work. If he can figure out how to remove the mating barrier between incompatible plants, then farmers will see an increase in healthy, productive plants.
The main challenge, says McClure, is keeping his plants healthy and happy. The sleeping bag he keeps in his office is evidence of the constant worry that accompanies his work. If somebody doesn’t show up to water the plants, he warns, “you come back and the greenhouse is toast, and in many cases the plants I’ve got are irreplaceable.”
The potato is an essential global food source and the world’s number one non-grain food commodity. However, this valuable food is vulnerable to pests and disease. McClure wants to figure out how to move disease-resistant genes from wild potatoes to cultivated ones. Such a cross would lead to increased crop productivity and immense benefits for farmers.
McClure says that choosing plants for his research requires much consideration. Originally, he studied the Nicotiana genus, relatives of tobacco, but when those plants proved too difficult for some experiments he started concentrating on tomato relatives. Currently, McClure has begun work on potatoes.
Because plants can’t move around to find suitable mates, they depend on other forces, such as birds, bees, and wind, to bring them pollen. They can make themselves attractive to one kind of animal versus another, but they don’t have control over whose pollen is transferred to them. McClure is trying to understand how plants are able to screen all the pollen that comes to them and then identify the best choice.
Bruce McClure studies plant mating. Similarly to all sexually reproducing organisms, plants devise ways to identify appropriate mates. The penalty for choosing a partner who is either too closely related or too genetically different is unhealthy offspring. Sound familiar? The same rules apply to human reproduction, with one major difference—plants can’t move around or talk. McClure and his fellow researchers approach plant mating with a scientific lens and study the type of communication that takes place within these organisms.
McClure shows us his greenhouse and demonstrates how to pollinate a plant.
Currently, McClure is teaching in MU’s medical school. Before that, his undergraduate courses incorporated his plant research. “That is why it’s worthwhile for students to come to a research university,” says McClure. “Like the students, I am struggling to learn things that I don’t know. I can empathize with how hard it is to learn things, and I can share strategies to learn.”
For Gangopadhyay, collaboration is one of the most important parts of scientific research. “If you don’t have the right collaborators,” she remarks, “it’s impossible to move your field to the next level.” Many of the collaborations with which she is involved are possible only on the MU campus.
“I don’t know exactly why I got interested in biology,” recounts Cone. “I was interested in medicine, so I started college thinking that I would be a medical doctor… But pretty soon I realized that wasn’t the kind of work that I wanted to do. So I started leaning more towards research.” Because of her own experience, Cone advises students accordingly: “You can turn out okay even if you don’t know what you want to do right now. So you just have to look for opportunities and keep your eyes open. Listen to what people are telling you, and to what sounds cool, and believe that nothing is impossible. In science it is common to totally change fields, to do your Ph.D. in one thing and eventually end up working on some other topic. Getting a Ph.D., after all, is about learning to be a critical independent thinker.”
It is fascinating to hear about how these graduate students were drawn to their chosen area of study. While in some cases, their graduate program was a logical next step, for other students there is the sense that serendipity played a bigger role. In all cases, however, the sense of “something just clicking” becomes evident. Once they chose an area in which to specialize, that is, other aspects of their research and study just seem to fall into place.
William Donald Thomas, for example, recalls his college days: “I was an art major and then an English major, but I couldn’t see myself doing that for the rest of my life.…I looked at what I liked most, and that was biology. I wasn’t always interested in exactly what I’m doing now. I sort of fell into it. I like the simplicity in the system we are using; that is probably what attracted me to it.”
Similarly, Erica Racen admits that she did not begin in the basic sciences. As an undergraduate student, however, she did research in the area of cardio-thoracic surgery. “I was excited about science and research, and after graduating, I decided to get my Ph.D.” While doing rotations in different labs, she states: “When I tried out Karen Bennett’s laboratory, I found that it was the right fit for me. I liked the research, and as I have slowly learned more about it, it has kind of become my own.”
Brian Bostick recounts that he enjoyed science and medicine in high school, saying, “I always thought I would be a doctor.” While taking classes to prepare for medical school, he was exposed to the research aspect of academia. “I got really interested in how the stuff in the textbooks got there. I wanted to become one of the people who discovers those things.” After doing a rotation in Dongsheng Duan’s laboratory, says Bostick, “I think that’s when it all clicked. It was really exciting. Duan is really energetic and believes in the work he is doing. He is always thinking back to the actual patients. I think that is what really got me interested in research, but also in combining research with the clinical side.”
“Growing up, I was fascinated by nature and plants,” tells Amy Replogle. Intending to pursue plant biology in college, an internship at The Ohio State University in plant pathology triggered greater interest. Afterward, Replogle came to MU for an internship with Melissa Mitchum, who later became her advisor.
“I’ve always liked plants,” says Severin Stevenson about his own path to graduate school. Not only are plants relatively easy to study and hold multiple opportunities for studying, but they are also a good starting model. “Biochemistry is biochemistry,” suggests Stevenson. “No matter what system you are working on, you can apply it to other systems as well.”
As a graduate student in the Division of Biological Sciences, William Donald Thomas works in the area of molecular and protein biology. Specifically, his research—with mentor George P. Smith in the Phage Display Lab seeks to find peptides that bind to breast cancer cells in hopes of developing better diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.
Thomas explains: “Right now, the imaging and treatment of cancer is pretty nonspecific. The hope is that we can make or discover molecules that are specific to cancer, because the current treatment for cancer basically just targets cells that grow fast and, in doing so, they make people sick. The whole motivation is to find something that can specifically target cancer cells, in this case, breast cancer cells.” As such, Thomas’ research involves cloning different proteins and selecting a protein that is over-expressed in breast cancer cells called ErbB2.
A typical week for Thomas actually begins the previous week, meeting with his adviser, planning experiments, and discussing problems encountered. “Right now my goal is to find peptides that bind to cancer cells, but that is going to take a lot of little steps. A lot of proteins are going to have to be made and designed. I spend a fair amount of time designing the experiments and then doing them.” When the experiments don’t work, Thomas must re-design them. “In a nutshell, I play with proteins all day,” he jokes. “Fundamentally, I’m studying protein to protein interactions, so that I can find things that could be used to bind breast cancer cells.”
“Cancer treatment, as it stands now, is like going at a very particular problem with a sledge hammer, when we need something more fine-tuned like a scalpel. Otherwise, we are making the patient sick by indiscriminately killing cells; the pain endured from cancer treatments can take its toll. We want to be able to increase the patient’s health and not decrease the quality of life.”
Of her typical day, Amy Replogle, a graduate student in the Division of Plant Sciences, responds: “When I am not in class, I am in the lab doing research.” Replogle focuses on plant microbiology and pathology with professor Melissa Mitchum in the Bond Life Sciences Center. Specifically, she is working on the interaction between the plant parasitic cyst nematode and its host plant the soybean. These plant cyst nematodes are microscopic round worms that live in the soil and feed off the roots of plants. When they feed, they cause damage to the roots so that they can no longer uptake the water and nutrients needed for proper development. When a high percentage of soybean cyst nematodes reside in the soil, they result in yield losses for the farmer, a huge problem for Missouri soybean farmers.
Replogle demonstrates some of the steps involved in her experiments—from hatching the eggs and germinating soybean seeds to examining the infected roots with an inverted microscope. Replogle describes the life cycle of the soybean cyst nematode, which begins with the adult female cyst, which contains hundreds of eggs, and which may lie in wait in the soil for thirty years. “That is just one of the reasons it is so hard to control,” she says. When hatched, the nematode seeks a root, enters it, and penetrates the cell walls, “spitting” secretion into the root to induce the breakdown of cell walls and the formation of a feeding site.
“This is where my research project comes in,” Replogle explains. “I am actually studying one of the particular proteins that the nematode secretes that enables it feed from the plant for the rest of its life.” Through this research, Replogle seeks to better understand this problem in order to propose better solutions.
Broadly speaking, Andrew Cox’s research interests within biology include ecology, evolution, and the conservation of birds. “Many people don’t realize,” says Cox, “that even in the best of circumstances a bird in the most pristine forest probably loses half of its young to predators.” Cox’s work, with his mentor John Faaborg of the Division of Biological Sciences, focuses on forest birds, particularly migrant birds, which winter in the south and come north to breed. “We know that the way people have used land has changed the breeding habitat of birds,” explains Cox. In Missouri, for example, much of the state was once comprised of forests. “As forests become more fragmented, it affects the lives of birds. We know that the more fragmented the forest becomes the lower the chances a particular bird has of producing young successfully.” Cox’s research seeks to understand why this is the case.
Focusing on two birds in particular, Acadian Flycatchers and Indigo Buntings—both of which reside in Missouri and surrounding areas—Cox uses constant surveillance cameras to monitor nests around the clock in order to identify the types of animals responsible for nest failure. He shows an example of a black rat snake attacking a young nestling. “Historically, we thought snakes and hawks were important predators, but we never had video evidence like this to prove it. You rarely witness the predation of an animal in the wild….We didn’t really know which animals were primarily responsible for overall predation pressures on these birds.”
Cox is also examining how predation impacts bird behavior. “There are a lot of predators out there who are visually oriented—for example, blue jays and hawks—so that the more frequently a bird goes to the nest to feed its young, the more likely it will draw attention to the nest.” Some research has shown that birds who visit the nest more often, in particular cases, are more likely to lose their nests to predators than those who visit less frequently. Cox seeks to understand the relationship between the types of predators and when they are most active, which can help to explain variation in the way birds behave. “As a small bird, you can only do so much to protect the nest,” Cox reflects. “A famous poet once said, ‘bread, tooth, and claw.’ It breaks your heart sometimes…but it’s the rule of the land, really, it’s just how things go.”
When asked about why they were drawn to this area of research or creative activity, MU faculty provide interesting and compelling responses. In some cases, they continued in school because the drive to learn new things was so great, because family provided a sense of identity and career direction, or because of initial interest in a related field. In other cases, they stumbled upon the field quite by accident. Regardless of the reason, the passion they hold for their work is obvious.
Chicone discusses the fundamental importance of mathematics for the natural world, observing that mathematics serves an array of practical purposes. He gives the example of one of his students, who freezes tissue for a project in cryobiology. The researchers working on this project are using mathematical models to make predictions about the behavior of living cells.
Chicone describes how he became interested in studying mathematics. Beginning with positive experiences he had as a student, his love for the subject continued
Chicone contributes to other fields of science outside of mathematics, cooperating, for example, with MU’s Medical School and School of Engineering to produce the kind of mathematical models that now play an integral role in designing predictions for scientific experiments.
Chicone believes math is an artistic expression like music, painting, and theatre. Not everyone can identify with this art, he admits, but those who can are able to develop a strong appreciation for problem-solving.
MU Biologist Rex Cocroft studies animal communication, something he was drawn to at a very young age. Communication is crucial to life at many levels, occurring within a cell, between cells, or between organisms within social groups.
“Once we reach the level of communication between individuals, not only is there the fascinating intellectual challenge of studying communication, but there’s also this tremendous aesthetic appeal – that the signals themselves are often beautiful: the songs of whales, the flapping of butterfly wings, the scents of flowers.” Beyond its inherent beauty, communication is very important for the biology of organisms, since the evolution of the signals has much to do with the evolution of the species itself.
The purpose of my project is to measure corticosterone levels of the American toad (Bufo americanus). In my study the physiological effect of stress on the toad is quantified using a commercial kit called RIA. Currently, the only available option to measure hormones in amphibians involves long and complicated homemade assays. The result of my research provides an easy and quick method of measuring corticosterone levels for the American toad. In combination with continuing studies on the behavioral effects of habitat fragmentation and deforestation, the commercial RIA kit will be used to determine the impact of stress on population size and/or possible extinction.
In order to establish the structure-function relationship of nanoscopic biomolecules, one needs to follow their dynamics on a mesoscopic time scale that is beyond the reach of current all-atom molecular dynamics (MD) simulations. A viable approach to this daunting problem is a multiscale modeling approach that requires as input the detailed free energy profile (potential of mean force [PMF]) of the system. In the present study we report PMF calculations based on a recently proposed method that employs fast (~10ns long) nonequilibrium MD simulations. Our PMF calculation method, which is more efficient than previously used ones, has yielded very good results for the folding/unfolding of deca-alanine and for the potassium ions transport through the gramicidin A channel protein.
Gompper and his team work with parasitologists at the School of Veterinary Sciences to learn more about the effects of various diseases on wildlife and how wildlife can act a resevoir for diseases that humans may contract. Gompper discusses many other collaborations as well.
Students work as a non-profit organization to promote the awareness of species extinction, animal ecology, and environmental issues to elementary students.
Without active management and conservation of tigers in the wild, tigers will disappear from the wild in our lifetime. Tigers for Tigers is a student group that raises money to help tigers continue to survive in the wild.
Introduction to Gompper’s research in conservation biology. Gompper discusses animal disease and evolutionary ecology.