Fellowship Funds Biology Student Research

Oct. 6, 2015 

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. —When biology major Rachel Ende ’16 (Colorado Springs, Colorado) was applying to colleges, the opportunity to conduct research was a major factor in her choice to attend Illinois Wesleyan.

Ende has made the most of that opportunity. Most recently Ende and fellow biology major Blake Beehler ’16 (Naperville, Illinois) received Criley Student Research Endowment awards. Students can conduct research over the summer under the mentorship of a faculty mentor, thanks to a $4,000 stipend paid to each student recipient.

Under the guidance of Assistant Professor of Biology Loralyn Cozy, both Ende and Beehler sought to better understand cell division and the cessation of growth in multicellular organisms. Ende spent the summer researching whether the shared ancestry of certain proteins in the photosynthetic cyanobacterium Anabaena meant they function in the same way as homologous proteins in the gut bacterium, E. coli. Beehler also utilized Anabaena cells, although he looked to better define the mechanism of growth cessation in specialized cells known as heterocysts.

Carcinogenesis, for example, is caused by mutation of the genetic material of normal cells, which upsets the normal balance between proliferation and cell death. The work of both students ultimately seeks to add to the body of knowledge in understanding how cells proliferate and how to control that proliferation.

“We are far from controlling that proliferation now, but research like this is a small step,” said Ende. She found that genes regulating cell division in Anabaena do not work the same way in E. coli, suggesting Anabaena may use new mechanisms to control growth. “When we put the genes into E. coli cells, they didn’t correct the cell division defect,” Ende said.

A negative result, as such, was the most important lesson for Ende. “Science is a lot about learning from your failures more than your successes,” she said. “Every experimental result can tell you something.”

Beehler’s research suggests a possible mechanism for the cessation of growth in developing heterocysts of Anabaena. More information is needed before the results can be considered conclusive; Beehler is continuing his research through the academic year.

Both students were among only a few undergraduates to present their research at the 2015 Molecular Genetics of Bacteria and Phages Meeting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The most important discoveries, however, may have occurred outside the lab.

“Research has become a huge passion,” said Beehler, a student in the pre-medicine program. “Even when I didn’t get the results I needed in the lab, the satisfaction of the process itself and being able to contribute something to science made a huge impact on me” – so much so, that Beehler is now applying to programs for an M.D.-Ph.D, a dual doctoral degree for physician-scientists.

“This experience shifted my career path toward research,” added Beehler.

Ende said the opportunity to work as a fulltime researcher gave her the experience she was seeking as a high schooler looking at colleges.

“It was really exciting to be so deeply involved in my research,” said Ende, who plans to earn a Ph.D. in microbiology after graduation from Illinois Wesleyan. “The opportunity to work fulltime on my project allowed me to really connect with it and feel ownership over it. I thought I would have so many more research opportunities at a purely undergraduate institution, and that’s turned out to be the case.”