Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Profile

Sri Lankan student and bichemistry major Dushani Palliyaguru '09 has joined a research team at UMass Medical School where she is studying a gene that may play a role in breast cancer metastasis. She has recently been awarded a Steinbrecher Fellowship to help fund her research.

What factors influenced your decision to study science at Clark?

Dushani: What really convinced me to come here is that Clark is very diverse and I thought that would be an advantage for me, coming from a different country. Also, the fact that Clark is small. I thought that would be a great way of interacting more with professors as well as students.

What is your opinion of the biochemistry program?

Dushani: The biochemistry department is amazing. I really like the fact that classes are very small. Typically they range from 10 to 25 students and I think, as I mentioned before, that gives a great opportunity for the students to interact more with their professors, such as when it comes to exams and you have a lot of pressing questions. Or even getting to know your professors on a more personal level and also getting to know your peers. I think that's very important when it comes to forming study groups. And getting to know the people you study with in your own department on a better level--I think that really helps.

Have you been involved in research?

Dushani: Yes, I have. The summer following my sophomore year I started doing research at UMass Medical School--I worked at a cancer biology lab. I'm still working there and hope to continue and develop it into my honors thesis project.

How did you get involved with that project?

Dushani: I spoke to Dr. Thurlow, who is the chair of the biochemistry/molecular biology program, as well as my faculty advisor. I told him that I wanted to get involved in some kind of research and he told me that I had the option of working at UMass Medical School. So I looked at a couple of labs there and found one that interested me.

Can you tell us a little bit about the research that you're doing at UMass?

Dushani: The project I'm working on is pretty cool, because I'm working with one specific gene that might have a role to play in breast cancer metastasis. So what I'm doing right now is using certain techniques that are widely used in biochemistry to see how exactly this gene affects metastasis.

Specifically, I'm looking at the possible role of insulin receptor subtrate 2 (IRS-2) in regulating a gene called apelin in breast cancer metastasis. My results so far suggest that IRS-2 has the ability to up-regulate apelin gene expression in mouse IRS-2 tumors and cell lines. This has been confirmed by quantitative real time PCR and microarray analyses.

How does learning through research participation differ from more traditional, classroom-based learning?

Dushani: I think it's absolutely necessary that every undergraduate takes some kind of research, especially if you're in the sciences. What you learn in the classroom is vital, but at the same time, you won't know what exactly you're supposed to be doing in real life until you go out there and start working in a lab or do some kind of research that is related to your field of interest. My experience was really rewarding, I would say, just because there were all these things that I learned in class about how the cell works, for example, and how you can use certain processes to identify something that is going on in the body. It's hard to grasp, especially concepts that you can't really see because they're abstract. Once you start doing something on your own, you can start seeing it for yourself and things fall into place when that happens.

Have you participated in any other interesting projects?

Dushani: Yes. This semester I'm taking bio-analytical chemistry, a lab-based course, which means that one big portion of the class is our lab sessions. Right now we're trying to create a mutation on a helicase enzyme just to see how the enzyme functions. The idea of the whole project is to publish a paper at the end of the semester, depending on what results we get.

You mentioned that you're also minoring in math. What are your impressions of that department?

Dushani: I really like the math department. I'm kind of sad that I haven't had more time to spend with math, because biochemistry obviously takes up a lot of time and energy and effort. But if I had the time, I would definitely go back and take more math classes.

Have you found the advising staff at Clark helpful?

Dushani: Oh, absolutely. They've been the people who have guided me through my past three years here at Clark. They see the whole process of taking classes from a different perspective. You might go online and see an interesting class and think, 'I'm going to take it.' But in reality, the question is how does it fit into your long-term goal, especially if you're a science major and if you don't have a lot of time to spend doing things that are outside of your interest. So it's important that you get a second opinion about what you should be doing. My professors and my faculty advisors so far have been very helpful in doing that.