Meet the Anton Fellows: A fascination with doing science
Interview with Entela Nako
Entela Nako's mother, grandmother and aunt are all professors of biochemistry in her home country of Albania. So it shouldn't be surprising that Entela is majoring in biochemistry here at Clark. An Anton Fellowship funded her summer research project under the supervision of biology professor Tom Leonard. In a recent conversation, summarized below, she talked about her Anton project and fascination with genetic research.
You have several strong female role models in your family.
Yes. While my grandmother and aunt helped to cultivate a love for science in me, my mother was my number one inspiration for my career choice. She has been my mother, teacher, mentor and best friend. Everything I am and have right now, I owe it to her and I want to thank her for everything she has done for me.
What prompted you to apply for the Anton Fellowship?
During my freshman year, there was a brilliant senior in biochemistry named Branka Stancevic '03. I sort of looked to her as my role model. She received an Anton Fellowship and her research was incredible. Since I plan to go on to graduate school in a Ph.D. program, I decided to apply for an Anton, too.
Had you participated in research before receiving the Anton Fellowship?
Yes, I started working at the beginning of my sophomore year in Dr. Leonard's lab, working with his students Julie Mazeika and Katie Kopycinski.* It was wonderful working with them, because they were great teachers and I was able to learn most of the essential lab skills before I received the Anton Fellowship.
What did you choose to do for your Anton project?
I had been reading about a cancer of the eye called retinoblastoma, which is caused by a dominant gene. The penetrance rate of that gene is 95%; that is, 95% percent of people with that gene develop or "express" retinoblastoma. But 5% of people that carry the gene don't develop the cancer.
I thought it would be interesting to learn more about why dominant genes are not always expressed. So for my Anton research I decided to study the penetrance of a gene that causes uncontrolled cell growth in a fungus called schizophyllum commune . This gene, mnd, is expressed as mounds (rather like tumors) growing on the fungus and causes a lot of damage. My research so far indicates that the penetrance of this fungal gene is only 67.78%--again, not the 100% that would be expected.
Do scientists have any ideas why penetrance can be less than the expected 100%?
Yes, it's possible that a lower penetrance can result from the interaction of one or more "background" genes with the mnd gene.
Have there been studies that suggest that this interaction is possible?
Yes, we do know that some genes need other genes in order to function properly. But we don't know if that's the reason in the case of this fungal gene, although that's my hypothesis.
How do you start to solve the puzzle?
Now that I've determined the penetrance rate of the mound gene, I'm undertaking a series of backcrosses to the non-mound parent. This process begins by mating a fungus that has the mnd (mound) gene with one that doesn't. (We also assume the non-mnd fungus does contain suppressor background genes.) The offspring are then mated (backcrossed) with the original healthy parent. From there, each new set of offspring is backcrossed with the original healthy parent. The purpose of the backcross process is to enrich each successive generation with the background gene(s) affecting penetrance. The ratio of mound expressing to non-mound expressing offspring in each generation will depend on whether the mnd and suppressor gene are linked or not linked.
The backcrosses take a long time to do. After every cross you have to wait for the spores to grow and then you have to observe whether the mound characteristics of the target gene are expressed or not. I'm halfway through the backcross work, and so far the penetrance rate is consistent with a suppressor gene being passed on among the progeny and affecting mnd gene expression in some of them. I need to do a few more crosses to determinine whether one or more suppressor genes is causing suppression of the mound phenotype in my genetic crosses.
In future crosses we might be able to identify the gene(s) that suppresses the mound gene, and determine whether the suppressor gene is on the same chromosome or linked to another chromosome. After that we would attempt to clone the suppressor gene and figure out how it suppresses.
Are you continuing with this project this academic year?
Yes. It's really interesting and I really enjoy working in a research lab. I'm working with one of Professor Leonard's graduate students, Goutami Banerjee, on another project, too. We're trying to isolate the gene that actually causes the uncontrolled cell growth--the mounds.
Can you comment on what you see as the advantages and disadvantages of participating in research in contrast with more traditional classroom learning?
I think research has a lot more advantages than classroom study. While I always liked studying science, I find doing science absolutely fascinating. Learning in the classroom is a totally different experience. In studying for exams you have to pretty much memorize certain things. Then you take the exam and the course is over-- unless you're continually using the material, like you do in the lab.
But when you work with your own hands, troubleshoot, and apply techniques, it's wonderful. I find it more helpful. And I find doing research is a better way for me to learn, because I'm actually working with the material. I see different techniques and try them out. I go back and try them again.
Getting a good grade is great too, but I feel like I've discovered something when I get good research results, and find something that nobody else knew about. Doing research is much more personal. You get in involved and you really care about what you're doing.
If I can get my Ph.D. and continue to do research, I will be very happy.
*Julie and Kathie, both class of 2003, took advantage of Clark's fifth-year free option in biology and received master's degrees in 2004.