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Researchers study worms for answers to human disease

Worms. To some of us, they're slimy creatures that invade our yards after a rain or what we use for fish bait on a warm summer day. But to a UW-Eau Claire biology professor and her students, worms, specifically nematodes — 1-millimeter-long roundworms — are an integral piece in research that seeks to understand human health and disease.

Dr. Jamie Lyman Gingerich worked with student researchers Kara Braunreiter, a 2013 biochemistry and molecular biology graduate, and Shelby Hamlin, a 2014 biology graduate, on research that focuses on the role of primary cilia in health and disease. This project aimed to understand one of the genes necessary for proper cilia function.

Cilia are like cellular antennae that sense the environment and elicit a response from the cell, Lyman Gingerich said.

"Think of the cilium like a radio antenna on your car that transmits signals to the radio — the cell nucleus," Lyman Gingerich said. "When cilia function is disrupted, cells do not function properly, and this can lead to diseases like polycystic kidney disease. We study C. elegans, a nematode worm, because their cilia are surprisingly similar to human cilia, so we hope to be able to transfer new understandings of worm cilia to human health and disease." 

Braunreiter and Hamlin spent years working on the research, which was recently published in PLOS ONE, an international, peer-reviewed scientific publication. 

"My participation in this research gave me great hands-on experience in the lab while also providing me with some great mentors," Hamlin said. "Not only did it expand my lab experience, but it helped me in my classes as well. If something came up in class, say a process or a lab technique that I had done or watched others do, it would help me better understand that concept or technique because I saw how it actually applied in the lab." 

Publication in a peer-reviewed journal is a crucial way to communicate with the scientific community, Lyman Gingerich said.

"It shows that students doing research at UW-Eau Claire are playing an integral role in the entire process of scientific inquiry and that they have developed a strong toolkit, including understanding the scientific literature, experimental design, analysis of results and communication of their findings. Kara and Shelby showed great enthusiasm, perseverance and independence while working in the lab."

Hamlin is currently working as a quality control specialist in the microbiology lab at Nestlé in Eau Claire. Braunreiter is a second-year graduate student at The Ohio State University working on a Ph.D. in molecular genetics. She shares her experience conducting student-faculty research and its importance during her undergraduate career.

Q&A with Kara Braunreiter 

How did you become involved in undergraduate research with Dr. Jamie Lyman Gingerich?

I was awarded the Blugold Fellowship as an incoming freshman, which is the first thing that made me consider looking for a research project. I met with Dr. Lyman Gingerich to talk about the work in her lab, and not only did I find the work fascinating, but I also liked her style of mentoring and the atmosphere she had created. 

What was your role in the project? 

My role was mainly to perform experiments that addressed the questions related to our work. I performed the bench work but also did a lot of data analysis to find the best ways to showcase the data. As I spent more time in the lab, I also was able to take on a mentorship role of training new students joining the lab. 

How did the experience supplement what you had been learning in the classroom?

My research experience was instrumental in my ability to attend graduate school. UW-Eau Claire has fantastic lab courses that exposed me to a lot of different techniques, but being a part of a research project taught me the concepts of scientific research and looking for information that isn't yet known. It is a very different type of learning from what goes on in the classroom, and I don't think I would have made it through my first year of graduate school without the training that I got in Dr. Lyman Gingerich's lab. 

What benefit did you receive from participating in this student-faculty collaborative research project?

I received an infinite number of benefits from the faculty-student collaboration. I owe my success as a graduate student to the experiences and mentorship I received while in Dr. Lyman Gingerich's lab. While I initially thought it was the scientific research that I was learning in the lab, looking back, I learned more about perseverance and creative thinking from Dr. Lyman Gingerich, and those are skills that have helped me tremendously in every aspect of my life. 

Top photo caption: Dr. Jamie Lyman Gingerich, assistant professor of biology

Side photo caption: Kara Braunreiter, a 2013 UW-Eau Claire biochemistry and molecular biology graduate