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Brother fuels Blugold's interest in genetics research

| Judy Berthiaume

A summer internship at Boston Children’s Hospital gave Allie Welter something even more valuable than new research skills and a chance to add to her already impressive resume.

It gave the Blugold an opportunity to intern in a research lab that studies myotubular myopathy, the same rare genetic disease that affects her 16-year-old brother, Andy.

“My interest in genetics comes from my younger brother,” says Welter, a UW-Eau Claire junior from Farmington, Minnesota. “Genetics has always been a huge part of my life because of him. The research lab that I interned in this summer actually studies my brother's genetic disease, along with others similar to it.

“Being able to work on research projects involving what first got me involved in biology, and helped shape my career plans, was a unique and cool experience that I feel lucky to have had.”

At UW-Eau Claire, Welter is studying biochemistry/molecular biology, a comprehensive major that allows her to take numerous classes in genetics.

With tentative plans to someday work in or have her own genetics research lab, an internship at one of the largest pediatric medical centers in the United States was an incredible opportunity, Welter says.

It also gave her a peek into what her future might someday look like if she continues to focus her studies on genetics research.

“This internship reassured me that I am in the right field and it got me excited for my future career,” says Welter, who is considering attending graduate school to earn a master's or Ph.D. in a biochemistry/biomedical program.

“I got to interact with current graduate students and hear about their experiences, learn from Ph.Ds about how they got to where they are today, and build connections with other interns.”

She also appreciates the opportunity to intern in a lab that studies a specific disease that already has had an enormous impact on her life.

Doctors did not think her brother would live past age 2 because his brain was deteriorating, Welter says, adding, “It’s really amazing that he turned 16 in August.” MTM is X-linked so it mainly affects boys like her brother, who uses a wheelchair and is dependent on a ventilator to breathe, she says.

Families affected by this disease regularly host conferences, where researchers gather to talk about the most current research on MTM. It was while she was attending these conferences that Welter shared with Dr. Alan Beggs of Boston Children’s Hospital her interest in research and genetics.

When she began thinking about summer internships, she contacted Dr. Beggs about possible opportunities in his lab. That outreach led to an interview and then the internship offer, she says.

“Dr. Beggs had already met me several times at these conferences and knew that I would work hard in his lab,” Welter says. “It definitely put me a step ahead of other people applying for this internship because I wasn't afraid to introduce myself and talk with him at these conferences.

“Networking is huge in science and making connections with professionals, who can provide great opportunities like this one, opened me up to a great experience.”

Welter was excited about the internship but she was nervous about moving to Boston since she has no friends or family there. Instead of letting her nerves stop her, she turned her across-the-country-trek into yet another learning experience, she says.

“I learned a lot from adapting to living in a big city and making friends and connections around Boston,” Welters says.

While working in a research lab in Boston was a new experience, research has been an important part of her world since her first semester at UW-Eau Claire.

As a Blugold Fellow, the then-freshman contacted Dr. Derek Gingerich, associate professor biology, after reading about his research. The two have worked together in his lab ever since.

In Gingerich’s lab, Welter works with the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, specifically with enhancer mutations that cause the plant to be hypersensitive to red light and grow short. The student-faculty research team currently is mapping where these mutations are in the genome in hopes to learn more about these mutations’ effects on the plant.

Her work at UW-Eau Claire as an undergraduate researcher enhanced the quality of her summer internship experience in Boston, she says.

“I noticed I was able to pick up on new lab skills and techniques easier because of my research background and what I learned during undergraduate research experience here at Eau Claire with Dr. Gingerich,” Welter says. “I had already learned basic genetics techniques, so it allowed me to focus on learning new skills and build off of what I already knew.”

While in Boston, she worked in a genetics research lab studying congenital myopathies, or muscle disorders that mostly involve the skeletal muscles. She worked with animal models, including zebrafish and mice.

“That was really out of my comfort zone since I work with plants in Eau Claire,” Welter says. “It took me some time to get used to working with an organism that actually moves, but it definitely got easier with time.”

The best part of her internship, she says, was the variety of things she was able to try and to learn while in the Boston Children’s Hospital research lab.

She is particularly excited to have improved her skills at basic genetics techniques.

“I learned how to use some different equipment that we don't have at UW-Eau Claire, like a cryostat, which makes thin slices of tissue that you put on microscope slides to stain and observe,” Welter says. “This was really neat because a cryostat is a machine I had only read about in my textbooks. I never thought I would learn to use one on my own this summer.”

Photo caption: Allie Welter spent her summer in Boston as an intern studying a rare genetic disorder, the same disorder that affects her younger brother.