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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Microbiologist Tom Leonard and his students study abnormal growths in a common tree fungus that may provide clues to the kind of uncontrolled cell growth that produces tumors in humans.

Meet the researchers: Growing and maturing in the lab

An interview with Professor Tom Leonard, Nora Mineva (grad student), and Julie Mazeika
At Clark, faculty, grad students, and undergraduates can work together as investigators on projects of mutual interest. In a recent interview, microbiologist Tom Leonard, master's degree candidate Nora Mineva, and Julie Mazeika '03 talked about their working relationship, biology at Clark, and their research on abnormal cell proliferation.

Tom, can you describe how your microbiology research lab is set up?
My lab runs like most research labs in this country. It's managed under my supervision by a graduate student or senior undergraduate who is proficient in lab techniques and has the big picture on what we're trying to accomplish.

The lab manager acts as a teacher and mentor to the undergraduate students. I mentor both grads and undergrads, but the undergrad really learns from the lab manager. The sharing and learning between the manager and undergraduate goes a lot deeper and faster than if the undergraduate just relied on the professor.

A manager like Nora is able to pass on to Julie many of the things that she (Nora) has picked up, not only from me, but from all of the talented professors that she has worked with. Nora gets the best of Clark, the best of the sciences, the best of biology, and she, in turn, teaches the undergrad as she learned it. It's different from the way I taught Nora, because Nora had to work with me in a piecemeal fashion, whereas Julie has the advantage of Nora's continuous company and guidance. They can bond and become good friends. It's a wonderful experience for both of them. And it will eventually lead to a research publication with both their names on it, Nora being the senior author.

Nora is a brilliant teacher-hopefully she'll be a professor someday. It's very hard to find something that she's not good at and she's the kind of student I love to work with. With her leaving me I now inherit Julie in her place. Julie was a quick study. She will now, having learned everything from Nora, be able to pass it on to the next student, probably a freshman or sophomore.

In order for our department to compete nationally for grants, we have to get research results. Most of our biology faculty are nationally competitive and their research is funded by either the NSF [National Science Foundation] money, or NIH [National Institutes of Health] money, all based on reviews of our work by other peer scientists. We have to be among the best in the country. I would say 80% of the department is funded. We share that wealth, so to speak, with the undergrads and grad students. We pay them during the year and during the summer. Oftentimes we send them to conferences. Our students often go on to the very best universities. Nora was accepted into one of the top cancer programs in the country-Sloan-Kettering in New York City.

Undergraduates can really grow and mature in the research laboratory. From the day they begin research they start changing. They eventually become good scientists and teachers. It's amazing what happens.

How do you identify students to work in your research laboratory?
When I teach microbiology, I have a chance to watch students work. I also have teaching assistants to give me second opinions. One of things I liked about Nora and Julie was that they came to the lab prepared and they could work independently. They were focused. I choose students who are comfortable in the lab environment, have good technique, and are pleasant to work with. Biology research is very much a team process.

What's the size of the biology department?
There are currently nine faculty members, and we'll grow to 12. There are about 18 graduate students and about 100 undergraduate biology majors. We're just getting ready to build a new biology building. I think one of Clark's strong points is that it's small enough so we can all communicate.

Tom, what is your particular research focus?
My research examines uncontrolled cell growth in the fungus schizophyllum commune. This type of growth disrupts normal development and leads to the competition of normal with abnormal tissues for space and nutrients. It resembles uncontrolled growth in plants and animals and may use some of the same genes and gene systems in humans. When we locate the gene that's causing this abnormal growth, we can search gene banks, particularly the human gene bank, to see if its DNA sequence has been seen before. It might mean a contribution to cancer research, to human growth and development research.

Nora, tell me about the project that you and Julie are working on.
For the past two years, I've been trying to clone the genes that are involved in the formation of the abnormal growths (mounds) that Tom is researching. We know from previous experiments that there is at least one gene involved in their formation. The whole developmental process is so complex though that it probably involves several genes.

The cloning of genes from s. commune, while common, has not yet been accomplished in our lab as we have just begun using this fungus in our lab at Clark. So we looked at procedures other scientists have used and adapted them to our own needs. We start by taking cells from a schizophyllum colony that exhibits mounds. Then we transform them with a genomic library, random fragments of genetic sequence taken from a non-mound producing strain. The resulting cells that have taken up gene-bearing fragments (known as transformants) are then grown into full colonies and examined to see if they still develop mounds.

If a transformant colony does not develop mounds, this will suggest that we have somehow affected mound formation--possibly by inserting the normal gene into the mutant mound gene site. We would then try to recover the normal gene fragment that we inserted, sequence it and identify the exact piece of it (gene) that causes the change.

Recently, we discovered two interesting transformants that didn't express mounds. We plan to use these to clone genes involved in mound development in S. commune. This is where Julie came in. She started learning new procedures from me and helping me with my research. She is now getting ready to continue with the cloning on her own.

Julie, how did you get involved in this project?
I decided to come to Clark because it has a very strong biology program. I took all the pre-med requirements because I wasn't sure whether medical school was something that I wanted or not. Then I had Dr. Leonard as a professor last year in microbiology. Two years before, other professors had asked me if I wanted to do research in their labs. But, at the time, that was the last thing I wanted to do, because I didn't really know what it was all about, and I didn't think I wanted to be stuck in a lab for my whole life. Then when Dr. Leonard told me about his research, and what he and Nora were doing in the lab, it really appealed to me and I thought it might be something I'd be interested in. So he asked me if I'd work for him and with Nora. I started at the end of May and I've been working in the lab all summer. It's been a great experience for me. I've learned a lot from Nora and I can't wait to take over!

Are you going to be able to continue working on the project over the next year?
Yes, I have directed studies with Dr. Leonard for two of my classes this coming year and after that I hope to continue working for my master's degree.

So are you still thinking about medical school, or are you inclining to pure research?
I'm really not sure. Probably right now, if I had to make a choice, I'd go into research.

What do you think you're getting from doing research in the lab that you might not get in a regular classroom scenario?
They're like night and day. Working with Nora has been unbelievable. We're very close. I never knew her before working in the lab. Over the past few months we've grown to be good friends. I feel very comfortable asking her questions, even if they're stupid questions that I've asked her a million times! She's always more than willing to answer them for me. Working in the summer, 40 hours a week, you get all the attention you need; you can ask all the questions that you want. You get a lot further working all day, especially with someone as qualified as Nora.

I didn't know what research was all about before I got into it, and that's probably why I shied away from it for so long. The way Dr. Leonard presented it to me, I couldn't say no, it sounded so interesting. It was right up my alley. It's really neat the way he presents it. It's kind of like you're looking for something, investigating and trying to find out what you would find. I just never looked at it like that before. It's like a mystery. Every single day you never know what's going to happen in the lab. Not a day has gone by that we could predict what happened, or that we were bored.

 

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Professor Leonard, Nora Mineva, and Julie Mazeika
Professor Leonard, Nora Mineva, and Julie Mazeika (clockwise)

 Thinking of research in a new way
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