Farquhar College of Arts & Sciences
Using Research to Prepare for the Future
When we give our children flu shots, we do it with the best of intentions. However, inoculation sometimes brings unintended consequences, like the introduction of vaccine preservatives and other chemicals whose long-term effects may be unknown.
Learning more about these connections is now a central focus in the undergraduate career of sophomore biology student Christie Rubio, who set out in 2007 on an Honors research project to explore the effects of a preservative agent—thimerosal—commonly found in flu vaccines until the late 1990s.
Like many students, Rubio knew she wanted to do hands-on lab research, but she wasn't sure about a topic. That is, until she read an article about the possible risks of thimerosal.
Rubio then worked with her project adviser, Emily Schmitt, Ph.D., associate professor in the college's Division of Math, Science, and Technology, to develop a research plan as part of the college's Undergraduate Honors Program that would cover work right through her graduation in spring 2011.
Honors students—approximately the top 10 percent of the undergraduate PALS enrollment—have access to special scholarship opportunities, unique courses, and enhanced study-abroad experiences. A key focus is the Divisional Honors Program, which provides a comprehensive framework and financial support for students to develop a co-curricular research project spanning several years. "When students complete the Honors thesis process, they have gained valuable experience researching an idea, formulating a question, and communicating the results of their quest to answer that question to more advanced members of the scholarly community and to their peers," says Schmitt about Christie Rubio and other Honors students. "This is an excellent way to prove oneself worthy of higher levels of study such as more advanced research and graduate school."
So with a thesis in mind, and after two semesters of literature review and planning, Rubio was ready to submit her Honors proposal in March 2008—"The Effect of Thimerosal on Gene Expression in Saccharomyces cerevisiae."
Saccharomyces cerevisiae is just common baker's yeast, but is one of the most important organisms in Schmitt's lab. Yeast has 30 percent of its genes in common with the human genome, and yeast is much easier and cheaper to work with than many other test organisms.
For her research, Rubio will grow yeast cultures and expose them to flu vaccines with and without thimerosal added. Then she will isolate specific yeast genes based on their similarities with human genes and examine changes in gene "expression"—whether exposure to thimerosal turns genetic activity on or off.
Like other undergraduates passing through Schmitt's lab, Rubio is gaining much more in-depth knowledge about genetics than she would just from biology classes. She is also connecting to the broader research community and learning to use lab procedures and analytical programs developed by the National Institutes of Health and other organizations central to her career goals of attending medical school and becoming a doctor.
With a graduation goal of May 2011, Rubio doesn't plan to defend her Honors thesis until winter semester of that year. It's a huge time commitment—more than three years in all—but Rubio is one of a growing number of students putting in a lot of lab time early in their academic careers.
The learning curve in the lab was steep, but by late September 2008, Rubio had already established control baselines for her studies and says she's fully encouraged as she sets out on such an investment of time and resources. "It's not so intimidating as I once believed," she says.
And the rewards are great. "I expect that this study will break ground for more research in the years to come," Rubio adds. "I also want to set an example for future research students. Perhaps this study can lead into someone else discovering the effect of thimerosal on humans, thereby making us even more knowledgeable about our everyday encounters."