Undergraduate researchers find success in Wayland’s Welch Summer Research Program

PLAINVIEW – Is RecA one of the culprits behind drug resistance in tuberculosis?

Answering that question could go a long way toward curbing resistance, and some of the work done by Wayland Baptist University’s 2023 Welch Summer Research Program participants pushed closer to getting an answer to that question. Another participant in the summer undergraduate research program funded by the Robert A. Welch Foundation explored breast cancer cell response to various chemical treatments.

Chelsea Kelley, Elizabeth Wirth, and Luke Brockaway were all involved in RecA-related research projects this summer, while Bruna Moureira’s project involved detecting breast cancer cell response. Kelley and Wirth conducted their research under Dr. Robert Moore, Professor of Chemistry, while Brockway and Moureira were guided by Dr. Matthew Dyson, Associate Professor of Biology and Chemistry.

Moureira’s research involved using qPCR to detect breast cancer cell response to various chemical treatments.

“This can be useful in finding novel chemotherapeutics,” Dyson explained. “The goal is to determine if buffalo gourd could be a source of estradiol analogs that may inhibit breast cancer cell growth.”

Brockway explained that his research project was designed to meet a need that could allow ongoing research of the RecA protein.

“Our research group desperately wants to study the RecA protein from Mycobacterium tuberculosis, but it is dangerous and time-consuming to handle and manipulate these pathogenic bacteria,” Brockway said. “I genetically engineered multiple strains of E. coli bacteria to express the mycobacterial RecA gene and began optimizing how to induce and harvest the resulting protein.”

Brockway’s work will allow researchers to harvest this specific enzyme in large quantities to continue running experiments on how RecA interacts with DNA in a way that may lead to drug-resistant mutations.

Kelley’s research sought to determine why M. tuberculosis is becoming drug resistant.

“We are studying a certain protein from tuberculosis called RecA that is responsible for repairing damaged DNA,” she explained. “We believe that when RecA goes to repair DNA, it is failing to match correctly which is leading to the drug resistance. This summer, I was able to optimize our procedure and restore signal for a post-strand exchange phosphate-directed biotinylation process.”

Wirth’s research focused on the specificity of RecA binding to DNA within the Mycobacterium tuberculosis genome. Weak binding of RecA to DNA during DNA repair is associated with mutagenic repair, which could lead to drug resistance.

“I identified distinct purine and pyrimidine patterns within the sequences that had previously yielded results,” Wirth explained. “The goal was to assess how the redundancy of bases influences RecA binding. Our aim was to discern whether certain DNA sequences are preferred by RecA for binding over others.”

The students were not involved in class-level research during the summer program. Their work was much more than what takes place in classrooms during a regular semester.

“It’s stuff you would see happening at a graduate school, not undergraduate,” Moore said.

Dr. Adam Reinhart, Dean of the Kenneth L. Mattox School of Mathematics and Sciences, said the Welch program helps participants transition from science students to research scientists.

The summer researchers plan to attend the annual Welch Conference in Houston, Oct. 23-24; the Southwest Meeting of the American Chemical Society, Nov. 15-18, in Oklahoma City; and the annual Texas Academy of Science Meeting in February. At each conference they will present their research and findings.

Welch Summer Research Program participants receive funding for their eight-week research project, a stipend, and three hours of research credit applied to their chemistry or cell biology degree programs. The university provides room and board for Welch grant participants.

The long-term benefits of the Welch Summer Research program for students are exponential, often launching these researchers into graduate research programs with life-changing career opportunities.

“This summer research makes me more confident to dive deeper into more science disciplines and confirms my longing for a career in the medical field,” Brockway said.

“This summer I learned how to be independent in the lab and how to problem solve. I believe these qualities will be a huge asset to me as I want to further my education in graduate school,” Kelley said. “I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity and guidance from my advisers to learn and improve in the lab.

“Engaging in summer research has been an incredibly enriching experience, equipping me with valuable skills in problem-solving and patience,” Wirth said. “The hands-on exposure to laboratory work also promises to be beneficial for my prospective career in the medical field.”

The Welch Summer Research Program is in its 18th year at Wayland. The university recently renewed funding for three years from the Welch Departmental Research Grant. This annual award increased this year from $28,000 to $40,000. Wayland also was awarded the Welch Foundation’s inaugural Equipment Grant for $75,000. Funding was used to purchase a multimode plate detection system and a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer. Both pieces will be installed in the new Mabee Laboratory Sciences Building.