Imagine as a senior in college you research heady stuff like determining how manipulation of specific proteins in neuronal support cells impacts their function.
Well that’s what Westfield State University biology major James Scripter got to study when he collaborated with Robin White, assistant professor of biology, in a spin-off of her doctoral work. White describes the research as “a very technically complex project.”
“James’s amazing laboratory skills have helped him be very successful. In addition, he is incredibly knowledgeable about biology and asks great questions,” she said.
White’s research papers helped Scripter better understand the concept, which he admits took him quite a while to fully understand, as well as its importance. But once he grasped the meaning, Scripter was instantly hooked.
In his own words, this is how he explains the research: “In context, during development of the brain, migrating immature neurons rely on astrocyte precursor cells for guidance to their final destinations in the brain. These precursor cells, called radial glial cells, express high levels of a protein called brain lipid binding protein at the same time providing a scaffold for neurons to migrate across. In the structure of a neuron, there are axons and dendrites. Axons are the part of the neuron that passes the electrical signal to other neurons by chemical neurotransmitters. The dendrites are the opposite as they receive the signal from other neurons. In research, it is difficult to distinguish between an axon and a dendrite in a microscope, so we just call them neurites.”
Not surprisingly, Scripter never worked with neurons or astrocytes before this project, but he still found it appealing.
“The one thing that interested me the most is the fact that we were able to cause the neurites of neurons to grow longer by just adding a piece of DNA. That’s just unbelievable,” he said.
From Scripter’s results, he found a statistically significant increase in neurite length. That means in cases like spinal cord injuries, or neuronal diseases, the length of neurites help in the healing process to reclaim those previous connections.
Scripter presented his findings at the 22nd annual Massachusetts Statewide Undergraduate Research Conference at the University of Massachusetts in April and the Westfield State Research Conference in May.
“It is incredibly important for students to present their work at conferences. Oftentimes, we focus on the lab work, but being able to present and share findings is an important part of the process,” White said. “The students get the opportunity to improve their presentation skills and learn about other areas of research.”
After graduation, Scripter planned to find an entry-level job as a laboratory technician—or even better—an entry-level microbiology lab technician, in order to gain more experience before he decides that’s the career for him. Ultimately, he hopes to apply to graduate-level studies in microbiology.