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Woese Research Scholars announced for 2024

BY Ananya Sen
Sarah Kim, left, and Vanessa Quan have been selected for the Carl R. Woese Undergraduate Research Scholar Program."

Sarah Kim, left, and Vanessa Quan have been selected for the Carl R. Woese Undergraduate Research Scholar Program.

Sarah Kim and Vanessa Quan have been selected for the Carl R. Woese Undergraduate Research Scholar Program. Over a ten-week period in the summer, they will carry out research projects with the support of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. The goal of the program is to help the students pursue scientific questions that will have broad implications for society. 

Kim is currently a rising sophomore in neuroscience and will be continuing her work in the lab of Paul Bonthuis (GNDP), an assistant professor of comparative biosciences. The research group focuses on gene expression patterns in the brain and how they affect behavior and psychiatric diseases. In particular, they study genomic imprinting—a phenomenon where some genes are preferentially expressed depending on whether they are inherited from the mother or the father. This can, in turn, regulate social behavior in the children. 

Over the summer, Kim will be studying the effects of stress on individuals and their brains. Specifically, she will be looking at chronic social defeat stress in mice, which imitates stress responses in humans. To do so, she will be isolating RNA from the fear and reward regions in control mice and those under stress to measure changes in gene expression. She will then integrate those patterns with behavioral data to uncover which genes play a role during stress. 

“My work has the potential to uncover the biological basis of post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder,” Kim said. “I am excited to make major contributions as a co-author on future papers, which will give me an advantage when I apply for graduate programs in neuroscience.” 

Quan is a rising sophomore who is interested in material science and engineering. She will be working in the lab of Gregory Underhill (RBTE), an associate professor of bioengineering, who is interested in understanding the processes involved in tissue development, regeneration, and disease. The lab uses tissue engineering techniques to elucidate how microenvironmental cues affect the liver.

One of the lab’s interests is liver stem cell differentiation to better understand their behavior in Alagille Syndrome, a life-threatening liver genetic disorder. “This work was done in mouse embryonic liver cells and I want to extend the studies into human cells,” Quan said. 

Over the summer, Quan will first characterize healthy human liver cells in 3D microwell platforms to study how they respond to environmental cues. She will then compare the gene expressions in healthy and diseased Alagille liver cells to better understand potential therapeutic targets. 

“I have enjoyed working in this lab over the past semester and I’m excited to have the time and resources to fully dedicate myself to research over the summer,” Quan said. “It’s enriching to see how the classes I take outside of my lab are connected to what I’m working on and I look forward to sharing my discoveries so I can help drive the progress of the field.” 

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