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Major Insight: Cracking the Code on a Career in Genetics

Few fields are evolving as quickly as the field of genetics. Emily Wyatt found her calling in genetics while working in Miami University’s Killian Neurobiology Lab, where she studies a protein that is known to be a possible leading cause of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her work has earned her a Howard Hughes Internship Award and she represented Miami at the 2019 International Emory Global Health Case Competition.

On this episode, Emily talks about her research experience, career opportunities in genetics, and how others can follow a similar path into this growing field.

Featured Majors

Biology, Bioinformatics

Featured Internships

Howard Hughes Internship Award, The International Emory Global Health Case Competition

Featured Organizations

Killian Neurobiology Lab, The Genetics Club

Music: “Only Knows” by Broke For Free

Read the transcript

Announcer:

Major Insight is a production of Miami University. This is where we showcase successful students, their promising new research, and its relevance in our world.

(MUSIC)

Few fields today are evolving as quickly as the field of genetics. As scientists continue to peer deep within building block of life itself, new breakthroughs are providing promising new ways to treat, prevent, and cure a wide range of diseases and medical conditions.

At Miami, Emily Wyatt found her calling in genetics while working in the Killian neurobiology lab, where she studies a protein that is now known to be a possible leading cause of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her work has earned her a Howard Hughes Internship Award and she also represented Miami at the 2019 International Emory Global Health Case Competition.

And today Emily joins Major Insight Host Jacob Bruggeman to talk about her college experiences, career opportunities, and how others can follow a similar path into this growing field, and more.

Jacob Bruggeman:

All right. Welcome to the podcast. So Emily, can you give us a little bit of an overview of your outstanding experiences and achievements that you've had here at Miami University in your three years now?

Emily Wyatt:

So, while I've been here, one of the biggest things that I've done is the Howard Hughes Internship. It was a ten week long research internship and I was able to receive a stipend for living expenses, as well as a lab grant. I've also had experience doing, like, research in that lab for the past two years. And then another thing that I've done this year is entered the Global Health Case Competition here at Miami. So Miami University has their own competition in the fall, where a team of interdisciplinary students work together to solve a global health crisis. And then I've also been nominated to represent Miami at the international level for this competition.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Wow! Excellent. Excellent. what does that entail? So, you get to travel somewhere? Hopefully it's paid for …

Emily Wyatt:

Yes. So I'll be traveling to Atlanta to compete at Emory University with five other students from Miami. We’ll be competing against 29 other schools from the U.S., and one team from Canada, and one from Australia. And that is a week-long competition, where we receive another global health problem, and have a week to solve it, and present it to a team of judges, who are doctors in global health experts.

Jacob Bruggeman:

So tell us a little bit about what the Howard Hughes Internship Award is? What you did during that internship, and then what sort of come about as a result of it?

Emily Wyatt:

The Howard Hughes Internship is awarded to students for summer research pursuit. So, it's available to all the students in the departments of chemistry, biochemistry, biology, and microbiology. And so, for that you're able to receive a $3,000 stipend for living and $1,500 for your lab to use to buy materials. I submitted my proposal looking at fragile X syndrome.

So fragile X syndrome is a genetic condition. It's associated with autism spectrum disorders. And it was actually the first genetic condition to be linked to autism spectrum disorders. There are a few others. So my lab works with crickets as a model to study this disorder, and what I did for my project was to look at whether or not we could cause the crickets to pass this down to their offspring like could happen in a human situation, as well as I looked at the impact of the disorder on the crickets’ immune system.

Jacob Bruggeman:

So I come from the history and political science background. I spent my research time in the archives reading and writing and processing. For those of us who don't come from a lab hard sciences background, to use that term, what's the day-to-day like? What are the activities that you would engage in in the lab?

Emily Wyatt:

I think, probably unlike a lot of other lab situations, mine is very regimented on what happens when the crickets have a natural day/night cycle that we really try to follow. So anything that we do that looks at behavior, we have to do in the afternoon. That's when the crickets are most active. We tend to do a lot of maintenance and less hands-on stuff in the morning to accommodate that schedule. Usually, when I'd come in, we'd be looking at feeding the crickets for the day, giving them water, picking out crickets that we were gonna use for experiments later in the day, and then maybe doing a little bit of molecular biology stuff. So for me, that was a lot of looking at RNA, and doing a couple experiments with that. Then in the afternoon, we would do any behavior trials. We would do anything that required maybe a little more time. So, like, two or three hours for a single experiment, we would usually do in the afternoons, so that we could have that unbroken time to dedicate it.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Many people confuse RNA with DNA. So could you tell us what the difference is, and then also what you did with RNA?

Emily Wyatt:

Sure. DNA is what you would describe as your genes or your genetic code. So those are these written instruction manuals for your body, and it has two strands to it. So it has what we call base pairs, and those will match up with another one on a different strand. And it forms a double helix structure. RNA is only a single strand. So those bases are not paired up. And RNA is what results from DNA. It's the messenger that takes those instructions from DNA and gives them to the body. So that the body can make proteins, and the cell can do everything that it needs to survive.

So what I do with RNA, is I actually force it to become double-stranded, which it isn't normally double-stranded. And when you do that and then inject it into an organism, it will actually disrupt the mechanisms for creating proteins. So it forces the single-stranded RNA that's already present in the organism to be degraded. And disallows the organism from making that protein.

Jacob Bruggeman:

How do you -- and you could talk about this in like personal anecdotes or just broadly in terms of the university -- go from starting out in biology in your major to doing the type of research that is relevant beyond Miami, that you've been working on?

Emily Wyatt:

So once do you look at the professors who are doing research in your department, and you think you have found something that you're interested in. You talk to them. You join a lab. That is where that kind of starts, where you have to transition that almost theoretical knowledge into real-world application. And that comes just from a lot of practice, and from being mentored. I'm lucky to have a really awesome graduate student who is mentoring me, and who has been mentoring me since I started working in the lab. Her name is Molly and she's a PhD candidate.

And just a lot of that application comes from talking to your professor, talking to a grad student that you work with, and learning how the physical actions that you are performing in the lab relate to what is happening on a molecular or biological level.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Absolutely. Your own research topic, you've been lucky enough to sort of pick, has relevance, I believe, far beyond, you know, the lab at the University, and beyond a line on your resume, or your C.V. So could you describe for us the findings? What's going on in lab? How do you believe that this research on crickets, with the RNA you've talked about, is applicable beyond Miami?

Emily Wyatt:

So, as I've mentioned, the fragile x syndrome is associated with autism spectrum disorders, and the ways in which that's been shown in people with the disorder is a learning deficit. And then, also hypersensitivity to noise and light. And so, being able to do these experiments on crickets, we're just able to understand more about how this loss of what's called FMRP, or fragile X mental retardation protein, will be, like, affecting people and how we can then alleviate those symptoms. In the future, we are coming up with maybe gene therapies to help patients. But this is more of, like, exploratory about the nature of the disorder right now. Rather than anything curative.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Yeah. So you mentioned, you know, the prospect for some sort of gene therapy. And I know that's something you're interested in, in your own career, as you have a year left. So you have some time to think about this. But talk to us about gene therapy as a field it's developing, right? How would you see yourself as a part of that emerging field?

Emily Wyatt:

So the state of gene therapy right now is still very new, still like kind of in a hot debate over the ethics of different types of gene therapies. And it's still just something that is being researched, especially in mouse models and other animal models, before applying it to humans. And I don't think that we're really at that point yet. But something that we are at the point of is genetic testing. So that has been around for a while, and it’s really increased. We have what we call the next generation sequencing tests. So these are technologies that allow us to look at your DNA, very fast and very inexpensively.

Jacob Bruggeman:

That's the 23 And Me’s of the world, right? The tests you can get relatives for Christmas.

Emily Wyatt:

Yeah. So there's that direct-to-consumer genetic testing which is 23 And Me, Ancestry.com. All those things that you've heard about. But then it's also applied within the research world and with more medical models, where we're doing testing for medical reasons. And that's kind of where I see myself going after graduation - is working as a genetic counselor. So that would be kind of the person who kind of talks to that patient, or that client, about what this all really means, and what their options are.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Yeah, so you're sort of helping individuals interpret genetic data.

Emily Wyatt:

Yeah.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Okay. So how does that work?

Emily Wyatt:

So, usually it's people are referred by a doctor. So in cases of cancer genes, if they find out that they are diagnosed with cancer, or that maybe a relative is diagnosed with cancer, they might be referred by an oncologist. And that would be, like, the point where you say, you know, okay, what are you, you know, concerned about? Why do you want to seek genetic testing? Go through a family history, where you look at, like, maybe what are warning signs? That they could have a gene that might make them more likely to get breast cancer, for example, if they have multiple women in their family who've gotten early breast cancer, you know, that's a warning sign that we look for.

And then, kind of talk about so, you know, this is what you're concerned about. These are the different tests that you could apply to that question. You know, this is what it could tell you. And this is what it can't tell you. Because, you know, we can only say there's an increased risk, or a decreased risk, or it's the same amount of risk. And, you know, these are maybe preventative measures that we suggest you take, if we found a mutation that makes it more likely for that person to develop breast cancer. The genetic counselor and, like, the doctor may both sit down with the patient and say, we think that you should go in for screening every two years instead of every five years. Or that you should consider these preventative measures, you know, because we think they have an increased risk of getting breast cancer.

Jacob Bruggeman:

So, what’s next? What steps are on the horizon for you to get to take this career path?

Emily Wyatt:

So, in the fall, I'll be applying to master's programs. So genetic counseling is usually a two-year, 22 to 24 month program. And it combines a lot of classes. You usually do have a full course load of a lot of classes and genetics. And then, also a lot of classes in ethics and in counseling. And because, you know, ethics is a huge part of that, and it's something that the training programs really want you to understand, especially as this field is, like, evolving and becoming bigger than, I think, we ever thought it could be. So, taking those classes, doing a research project, and then also doing kind of a work study, where you first observe genetic counselors. And then you slowly start to take on those responsibilities and manage your own clients.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Well, excellent. Well, we wish you the best of luck on that career path. And hopefully Miami continues to build its presence in that field that, as you said, it's bigger than we ever thought it could be. So thanks for coming onto the podcast.

Emily Wyatt:

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Announcer:

Emily Wyatt is currently a senior at Miami University, where she serves as the president of the Genetics Club, while toward degrees in Biology, Bioinformatics, and Comparative Religion.

If you enjoyed this episode of Major Insight, share it with a friend, with students, or with anyone who hopes to make an impact on their world. You can find more of our podcasts for free, including episodes of our Reframe podcast, on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

SHOW NOTES:

Featured Majors: 
Biology

Bioinformatics

Featured Internships & Awards:

Howard Hughes Internship Award

The International Emory Global Health Case Competition.

Featured Organizations:

Killian Neurobiology Lab

The Genetics Club

Music: “Only Knows” by Broke For Free

Major Insight

 

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Major Insight is a production of Miami University and the Reframe podcast. This is where we showcase successful students, their promising new research, and its relevance in our world.

Host Jacob Bruggeman

Jacob Bruggemam

The Major Insight podcast is hosted by Jacob Bruggeman. Bruggeman, a Miami Honors student and double-major in History and Political Science created the podcast to feature stories of students navigating 21st century academic life.

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