SMART Program Alumna Spotlight

written by Lauren Askew B.S. Biology 2016

edited by Daijha J. Copeland

When I started my first year of college at UNC-Chapel Hill, undergraduate research or a research-related career had never crossed my mind. However, once I decided that I wanted to go to medical school my focus changed. I quickly discovered that it would be helpful to have some lab experience, so I found a research opportunity in Dr. Mara Duncan’s cell biology lab. As I gained more skills and summer approached, Dr. Duncan suggested that I apply for the Science and Math Achievement and Resourcefulness Track (SMART) summer research program. I was accepted into the 8-week program. I remember being both nervous and excited. Each week I spent about 40 hours in the lab and attended 3 meetings: lab meeting, a larger lab meeting with other labs, and a program meeting. I gave two presentations weekly and thus gained confidence in presenting scientific data. The first few weeks of the program were difficult because I was afraid to ask questions. I feared that lab members would think poorly of me. One day a graduate student took me under his wing and encouraged me to ask questions about my project and the projects of other lab members. I acted on the graduate student’s advice and my overall performance in the lab lead to an opportunity to do independent research my sophomore year.


LB+ Ampicillin bacterial plate with DamLmnB transformed colonies.

I did research on autophagy in yeast and how it can be initiated during the summer and the following school year. Early in the school year though, I transitioned to a biochemistry lab, and gained a new prospective on the work that I had previously conducted.

During the summer, working in a lab every day was straightforward. Research was my sole responsibility. I found during the school year that conducting research was far more difficult. Expectations were higher and time management was crucial when working with longer experiments. And then there was school work, and other obligations. By the end of my sophomore year, I better understood my capacity, stopped spreading myself so thin, and could better schedule experiments and extracurricular activities.

Lauren Askew before her journal club meeting during her Summer Internship Program (SIP) and John's Hopkins.

Lauren Askew during her Summer Internship Program (SIP) at John’s Hopkins.

Currently, I am doing research at Johns Hopkins for 10 weeks through their Summer Internship Program (SIP). My research is on Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, a rare genetic condition that causes delayed developmental growth and is characterized by premature rapid aging of the face in early childhood. The goal of my project is to find novel interactions between Zmpste24, a gene that codes for a post-translational enzyme, and other regulatory proteins proven to be involved in premature aging syndromes. The research involves working with mammalian cells and performing a lot of cloning, both of which are new to me.

Getting involved in research has changed my career plans significantly. Instead of pursuing the M.D. path, I plan to obtain an M.D./Ph.D. dual degree in infectious diseases. Although it is possible to do research as an M.D., I want to gain the research skills provided by a doctoral degree to reach my maximum potential as a medical researcher. My research experiences have also made me more interested in academia in the future. I had amazing mentors, who have constantly encouraged me and helped me strive towards excellence. Using the mentoring techniques I gained from my mentors, I have been able to help fellow students in their research projects. I find joy in sharing my knowledge with others and would definitely like to make mentoring others a part of my career.divider

“When One Teaches, Two Learn”

written by Rob Uche Onyenwoke

edited by Daijha J. Copeland

Rob Uche Onyenwoke, PhD

Rob Uche Onyenwoke, PhD

My career in the sciences began at the University of Georgia in Athens, where I received a B.S. in Biology and conducted an honors thesis involving an evolutionary analysis of microbial tRNAs (transfer RNAs). From working on my senior thesis with my mentor Prof. William B. Whitman, I garnered an interest in microbiology and decided to stay on and pursue a Ph.D. I focused my studies in the areas of performing biochemical and microbial analyses of oxidoreductase enzymes and microbial metabolism and performing microscopy. One of my fondest memories of this time was due to my mentor, Prof. Juergen Wiegel, who helped me through the trying time of completing my Ph.D dissertation. Prof. Wiegel was the epitome of a great mentor and working with him led me to serve as an instructor of microbiology and later a teaching fellow during the final year of my Ph.D. work.

While completing my Ph.D., I spent a significant amount of my time as a researcher and teacher, mentoring undergraduate and graduate students in my respective departments. Having had a fantastic mentor, like Prof. Wiegel, I was eager to guide and counsel younger researchers through their journey. Based upon my own experiences, I learned to view mentoring as very important work.

I accepted a post-doctorate fellowship from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, after completing my teaching fellowship and Ph.D. work. UNC gave me the opportunity to work with Prof. Jay Brenman in the Neuroscience Center and Lineberger Cancer Center studying and identifying novel metabolic targets involved in the progression of diabetes and cancer/neuroblastoma. Soon I began developing my own areas of research and went on to further characterize a calcium channel intimately involved with metabolic disease using high-content imaging.

(B) Representative image of wild-type da neurons expressing an Actin::GFP fusion transgene in a second instar larva. (C) ampka mutants display enlarged plasma membrane domains (arrows) in sensory neuron dendrites, but not axons. (D) A wild-type ampka transgene expressed autonomously within da neurons completely rescues the dendrite phenotype.

(B) Representative image of wild-type da neurons expressing an Actin::GFP fusion transgene in a second instar larva. (C) ampka mutants display enlarged plasma membrane domains (arrows) in sensory neuron dendrites, but not axons. (D) A wild-type ampka transgene expressed autonomously within da neurons completely rescues the dendrite phenotype. Images from: Swick, L. , & Kazgan, N. , & Onyenwoke, R. U., & Brenman, J. E. (2013). Isolation of AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) alleles required for neuronal maintenance in Drosophila melanogaster.. Biology Open, 1321-1323.

Dr. Brenman on occasion also served as a faculty mentor to a program offered at UNC called the Science and Math Achievement and Resourcefulness Track program (SMART). I participated as a mentor. The SMART program paired undergraduates with mentors. Students were expected to commit a minimum of 30 hours a week during the summer to complete a research project. Thanh Bui (B.A. Chemistry ’14) was my mentee last summer. I helped her navigate the ins and outs of the lab in order to complete her project examining the relationship between the enzyme AMPK, gene TRPML1, and the target of rapamycin complex 1 (TORC1) pathway. I am proud to say that we have plans to include her work in a revised manuscript to be submitted to the journal Science Signaling. Bui will begin her graduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Pharmacy in the fall.

Dr. Rob Uche Onyenwoke is an independent Principal Investigator with the Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE), a part of North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in Durham as a Research Assistant Professor/Core Facility Manager. NCCU’s BRITE is primarily a training institute and seeks to mentor and train the next generation of scientists.divider