This summer I am working in the Jia Laboratory at Columbia University, led by Dr. Songtao Jia. This lab focuses on researching epigenetics, and specifically epigenetic control of genome organization. In cells, genomic DNA is in the folded form of chromatin, and the elements that compose chromatin are nucleosomes, which are DNA wrapped around histones. Mutations in histones, while rare, can have large effects on the stability of chromatin. Additionally, these mutations have been seen across a wide variety of cancers and developmental disorders. Thus, the Jia laboratory is studying histone mutations in order to more fully understand how they interact with other mutations, and how chromatin can be rescued from these mutations. In the Jia Lab, fission yeast (Schizosaccharomyces pombe) is used to examine mutations. This yeast can be used due to the high levels of conservation of chromatin metabolism between yeast and mammals. Additionally, mutations that have been disease-causing in humans can have parallel identities in yeast, which allows the lab to study those mutations and their interactions utilizing the yeast cells.
The project I have been focusing on so far is the one my PhD candidate mentor is working on. He is studying a gene that, when over-expressed, causes chromatin instability - so, we are investigating other mutations that, when combined, can rescue the chromatin as seen by cells with normal growth.
In order to work on this project, I have learned a variety of skills in the lab. This includes crossing different strains of cells, dissecting tetrads of cells when the crosses have mated, dilution analysis to see if combinations of mutations have rescued chromatin in the cells, isolation of genomic DNA, PCR to magnify isolated genomic DNA, gel electrophoresis to visualize the PCR, and purification of PCR products to be sent to an outside lab for sequencing. The skill I have been working on the most, and is one of the most important for the project, is tetrad dissection. To dissect the tetrads of cells, I utilize a dissecting microscope that has a needle I can operate to pick up, separate, and drop cells. The microscope helps me to drop cells into a matrix, so that when they further grow out, it is visible if the cross was successful based on which cells survive on the plate and which do not. My first dissections took me up to 2 hours, but I can now complete a dissection (which includes dissecting 18 tetrads) in under an hour.
I have also learned a lot about how a smaller lab functions, as the Jia lab includes - aside from Dr. Jia - my grad student mentor, one post-doc, and one other undergraduate researcher, so there is a lot of collaboration despite separate projects being done by different members of the lab. I am enjoying the opportunity to collaborate with different scientists and being able to assist others with their research projects.
I think that this aspect of collaboration is one that I find especially relevant to education. While completing lab research isn’t explicitly an education experience, I find that having the skills to work with others in a scientific context is one that is essential when it comes to education as well. Additionally, I think it is a great boon for science teachers to have an intimate knowledge of the science they are teaching. While it is not possible for all teachers to do research, or for those who do, to research a large variety of subjects, understanding the process of scientific research and discovery allows for a teacher to better convey that process to students. Research in science can seem very opaque to students, and complex and dense journal articles do not do much to illuminate the reality. Thus, if a teacher has lab experience and understands how discoveries are made in this way, students have direct access to this knowledge. Additionally, it gives a teacher an understanding of hands-on science, not simply classroom-based lecture science.
In the next weeks in the lab, I hope to gain greater skill in the techniques I have learned through practice, as well as independence in the lab - that is, being able to know my tasks for the day and complete them with less assistance. I have already felt myself becoming more independent, but I think I could gain more ability to understand what I will accomplish before I come into the lab for the day. Also, I hope to gain a greater understanding of the scientific background of the projects we are completing, and I want to be able to better understand the results of experiments I do.