Researching the root of disease
By Veronika Hanks '18
In the academic community, summer is often thought of as time off. But for many, it’s an opportunity to do further research like Jennifer Fishovitz, assistant professor of chemistry. She and her students will be busy at work researching various aspects of mitochondrial fusion and dysfunction in human cells. “The goal of my research is to study proteins that play a role in making sure that the mitochondria is healthy and can continue to produce energy,” said Fishovitz.
To break it down, OPA1 is one protein of interest to Fishovitz and her students because it allows cells to pass mitochondrial DNA back and forth. When these proteins dysfunction, cells experience a loss of energy and diseases such as blindness, deafness, and cardiomyopathy can arise. A better understanding of these proteins is needed for doctors to effectively treat patients because mitochondrial dysfunction is at the root of many diseases like Parkinson’s, some forms of heart disease, and other major diagnoses. In this way, Fishovitz and her students have the potential to make fruitful contributions to the scientific and medical communities.
Fishovitz has worked on this research with at least one Saint Mary’s student for the last few semesters. Summer 2017, she and chemistry majors Kate McMahon ’18 and Chloe Griggs ’20 were awarded a Marjorie A. Neuhoff ’61 Grant to continue the project, which funds 10 weeks of summer research for students and faculty. Kate was also awarded the Eli Lilly and Company Undergraduate Research grant, funded by the pharmaceutical company in Indianapolis.
Both students had the opportunity to present their research to Eli Lilly and Company, during an undergraduate research symposium. They also presented at the national American Chemical Society Conference this March, along with 10 other students.
It’s clear that students are active participants in Fishovitz’s research. They play important roles by reading relevant literature and conducting inventive experiments and are given more freedom and responsibility in the lab as they become more advanced in their knowledge. Fishovitz stressed that research allows students to learn important soft skills, such as time management, responsibility, and ethical data recording.
Kate echoed the value of such learning experiences. In conducting experiments, she learned to embrace failure as an opportunity for growth when experiments did not go as planned. “Learning how to accept failure and learn from it definitely enhanced my scholarly capacity and began preparing me for graduate school,” she shared.