Tyler Junior College teams up with UT Tyler professor to study genetic causes of diseases

Published on Monday, 17 July 2017 14:47 - Written by CORY MCCOY, comccoy@tylerpaper.com

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A Tyler Junior College student is spending her summer advancing research of the genetic causes of diseases.

Emily Dunnahoe was selected to participate in the University of Texas System Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation fellowship program, which has teamed her up with UT Tyler biology professor Dr. Brent Bill to study the way certain genes can lead to genetic defects.

Bill has been studying zebra fish for more than 15 years. His current research into the genetic causes of diabetes, Alzheimer’s, obesity and autism focuses on deleting certain genes during the development of the fish.

Dunnahoe is one of 10 students participating in the eight-week program at UT Tyler and dozens of others at UT campuses across the state.

“My research all those years has been to help understand what those genes do in relation to the nervous system,” he said. “Zebra fish are a fantastic model. They have fairly large eggs, are completely transparent and develop rather rapidly. Within five days every organ is formed and starts functioning.”

Bill said one of the biggest advantages of working with Zebra fish is the Crispr/Cas9 system, a set of tools specifically designed to target a single gene within the entirety of the genome.

Dunnahoe’s capstone project for Phi Theta Kappa at TJC focused on the Crispr/Cas9 system. Bill had not planned on participating in the LSAMP program this summer, but the two were too good of a match to pass up.

“Emily has made great progress over the summer,” Bill said. “We’ve made more progress so far than we had during the entirety of the last semester.”

Being able to focus on the project for more than 30 hours each week has been hugely beneficial to Bill, who estimates the project will continue for about two more years.

Being allowed to do graduate level research at the end of her sophomore year has been hugely beneficial to Dunnahoe’s education. She has been given hands on experience in areas most student will not unless they enter a master’s or doctorate program.

“I was surprised because I really thought I wasn’t going to be doing research,” she said. “I thought I would be fetching coffee and cleaning beakers.”

This fall she will be transferring to UT Austin to continue her studies and hopes to participate in the program again before entering graduate school.

“I’m getting paid to do science; that’s what I like to do,” she said. “It’s a treat.”

Her contributions to the project will be recognized by the department and most likely in a scientific journal, which LSAMP program coordinator Dr. Stephen B. Rainwater said is essentially a ticket to grad school.

Dunnahoe said she will likely work her way to a PhD before entering the private sector to do research of her own.

The LSAMP program wraps up with a poster presentation of the students’ findings at UT El Paso in September.

Twitter: @TMT_Cory