A revolutionary spirit runs through our veins at UMass Amherst. It inspires us to think in new ways and to challenge convention. This semester we celebrate three College of Natural Sciences students with the Rising Researcher award in recognition of their unconventional and inspiring approaches to research, scholarship and creative activity.
Biology major and Commonwealth Honors College student, William Johnson ’20 joined chemistry Professor Craig Martin’s lab in 2018 and quickly became an outstanding contributor, conducting both joint and independent research on transcription by T7 RNA polymerase. With applications to RNA therapeutics, RNA nanotechnology, and basic molecular biology, Johnson hopes his discoveries will push the boundaries of nucleic acid research.
Johnson’s efforts garnered him an Honors College Research Grant to fund his investigations, and inclusion as co-author on a peer-reviewed manuscript published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research, the premier journal in DNA/RNA/proteins in biology. Johnson has also spent two summers as an intern with New England Biolabs, conducting various aspects of research on a microbiome sequencing project.
“Troubleshooting countless experiments in the Martin lab has shown me why absorbing relevant background literature in depth and having concrete understandings of basic principles underlying biochemistry can make the difference in lab. Learning through undergraduate research, I can clearly see how obtaining higher education in my field is, and will continue to be, invaluable to my goals as a scientist,” says Johnson.
Colin Lemire ’20 has been involved in independent research in Assistant Professor Sibongile Mafu’s lab since the fall semester of his sophomore year. A Commonwealth Honors College student and biochemistry and molecular biology major, Lemire's research focuses on the biosynthesis of natural products (plants and fungi). Given that 25 percent of drugs are derived from natural, bioactive compounds, the goal of Lemire’s research is to better understand their metabolic pathways to enable future research into their function and potential pharmaceutical applications.
“Colin was awarded an Honors College Research Grant that supports his current research on the elucidation of the biosynthetic pathway of chemically distinct terpenes (organic compounds that can form a chemical defense) in fungi. His work involves gene discovery and pathway reconstruction of terpene molecules that have demonstrated activity as antimicrobials,” says Mafu.
Lemire has received a number of other grants and scholarships for his work, including a grant from the UMass Amherst Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment; an American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) Student Chapter Travel Award to present his research at the 2020 ASBMB Annual Meeting; a UMass Life Sciences Junior Fellow award, and acceptance into the Sophomores Serve program.
As part of Sophomores Serve, Lemire was able to combine his interests in research and public policy. He collaborated with peers on a research-guided policy proposal for alleviating food insecurity among children in Massachusetts. “We presented this research to the Massachusetts Senate at the State House, which was undoubtedly the best experience I have had as an undergraduate. My time at UMass has taught me that effective research should incorporate stakeholders inside and outside of the scientific community,” says Lemire.
Commonwealth Honors College student Joseph McGaunn ’20 has been involved in five research projects in Associate Professor Alexander Suvorov’s lab. McGaunn is investigating the role of molecular mechanisms in mediating interactions between an individual’s genetics and their environment, in transferring non-genetic information from one generation to the next, and the clinical applications for such mechanisms. A double major in biochemistry and molecular biology and psychology, his many investigations as an undergraduate researcher have led to a number of impressive discoveries and outcomes.
“Joseph conducted an experiment in my lab in which he discovered a link between paternal exposure to environmental chemicals and neurodevelopmental outcomes in offspring,” says Suvorov. Working in collaboration with the Pilsner lab, McGaunn identified intergenerational effects of paternal exposure to phthalates, a group of chemicals found in plastic products and cosmetics. He discovered that mice whose fathers were exposed to the phthalate DEHP were more active than controls, but when their fathers were exosed to the phthalates DEHP and DBP simultaneously, mice were slower and had lower average body weights as compared to controls.
McGaunn’s investigations also include experiments to identify a potential link between environmental exposure to toxins and changes in male fertility and epigenetics, and a rigorous bioinformatics analysis to understand how changes in liver RNA might be linked to flame-retardant exposure. He has worked on a meta-analysis of over 600,000 chemical-gene interactions that revealed cellular pathways not previously known to be highly sensitive to chemical exposure.
McGaunn has presented his work at the Northeast Society of Toxicology Regional Chapter annual meeting and the annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology, which Suvorov says is the most respected toxicological forum in the world.
“Joseph will coauthor four manuscripts that will be published by my lab. He has tremendous promise as a young researcher,” says Suvorov.
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Commonwealth Honors College
Office of Undergraduate Research and Studies