Cells, the building blocks of all biological life, can be chemically different even when they are genetically identical. While this heterogeneity has been studied in mammalian cell lines, particularly in human cancer, it has not been explored in other types of organisms. Trinity College Assistant Professor of Chemistry Michelle Kovarik recently received a $212,253 grant from the National Science Foundation to adapt existing biochemical and bioanalytical tools to study cellular differences in the social amoeba, Dictyostelium discoideum. By isolating and measuring levels of the enzyme protein kinase B, Kovarik’s research will add to existing knowledge of the causes and impacts of cellular heterogeneity. This data will provide a valuable context for future research on the subject.
Kovarik’s research will also establish a methodology for testing chemical differences in social amoeba at the single-cell level. Kovarik’s post-doctoral research focused on developing these tests for human cancer cells and the adaptation of two tools – microfluidics and peptide substrate reporters – will expand the application of these technologies to other organisms. “These tools have been developed with a huge investment of time, money, and student labor, yet they are not widely used,” said Kovarik. “Part of this project focuses on new applications of these powerful tools to see how else they can be used.”
This summer, Kovarik is working with three students (pictured) to test and refine the methodology. Of the 10 students whom Kovarik has employed in her lab over the past three years, seven have been involved with various aspects of this project. This dedication to student research was recognized by a reviewer at the National Science Foundation. Kovarik noted, “One reviewer was impressed that all the preliminary data in the proposal had been collected by my students here at Trinity, in our lab. I am very proud of this.”
Working with students is one of the most rewarding aspects of her job, and Kovarik is deeply committed to their success. “My undergraduate mentor changed the course of my career and my life,” she said. “One of the reasons I came to a small undergraduate institution was because I wanted to make sure that more students have a similar experience.”
Kovarik’s NSF grant will fund two student researchers in her lab for the next three summers. She is looking forward to this work and the opportunity to mentor future practitioners. “I am very passionate about my work,” she said. “Doing undergraduate research can be life-changing for those who decide to be professional scientists.”
Written by Ellen V. Hart