By Guy Spriggs
Every year talented and driven students are drawn to the University of Kentucky for its emphasis on research. This summer, biology students Taylor Shackleford and Sarah Whelan – who came to UK to pursue research – were given a unique opportunity to continue their lab work after spring classes came to a close.
Shackleford and Whelan are the first awardees of the Ribble Undergraduate Summer Research Internship, a new program for outstanding biology majors supported by the Gertrude F Ribble Fund. Both are not only excellent students, but also invaluable contributors to exciting biological research taking place here at UK.
“Taylor is intelligent and curious, which has enabled him to engage with the scientific literature and contribute to the development of his research project,” said Catherine Linnen, whose lab is home to Shackleford’s research.
A native of Indianapolis, Shackleford also comes from a family full of UK graduates. His research investigates the genetic basis of color variation in the redheaded pine sawfly, a widespread and economically damaging insect species.
“We want to identify the genes that are controlling the color variation and the spotting variation, and we’d also like to identify the effects of these different colors when living in the wild,” Shackleford explained.
According to Linnen, Shackleford’s independent project is exciting because it has the potential to address long-standing questions regarding the process(es) of adaptation in evolutionary biology.
Shackleford’s internship gave him the opportunity to collect a lot of new data, but also led to some breakthroughs in his research goals. “He has found that color is genetically determined,” Linnen explained. “Color appears to be controlled by a small number of loci. This fall he is continuing to work on this project to determine exactly which genes are responsible.”
Moreover, as a result of his internship, Shackleford was able to participate in the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program hosted at UK. The focus of the program was suburban ecology and invasive species – a natural fit for Shackleford’s research on the sawfly.
“I was able to work with students from all over the country, working on ecology and other topics. It was great to be able to work with them here at UK while continuing my project,” he said.
“His hard work helped get my research program up and running, and he collected some excellent preliminary data that helped my lab secure a research grant from the National Science Foundation,” Linnen added.
Whelan was similarly drawn to research early in her academic career. Her interest in genetics goes back to her first experiences with research in high school, and Whelan chose UK for the opportunities it offered to continue exploring genetics on a different level.
For Whelan, the Ribble internship was instrumental in allowing her to continue research over the summer without outside distractions. “It allowed me to focus a lot more on my research, which was so helpful,” she said.
Biology professor Jeramiah Smith, who nominated Whelan for the Ribble internship, has overseen Whelan’s research since her first year at UK. “Sarah continuously shows a high degree of motivation and professionalism in her research and is contributing to an important line of research in the lab,” said Smith.
Whelan’s research project attempts to characterize a gene that is critical to our understanding of lamprey germline biology. “All progress that has been made on this project is strictly the product of her own work,” Smith continued.
“A lot of cancers are caused by problems with rearranging your genome, and we believe that by studying lampreys we can figure out how vertebrates started rearranging their genomes and how they organize their genomes,” Whelan explained. “It can give insights into how these go wrong and cause cancer.”
Unlike other vertebrate species, lampreys rearrange their genome, deleting about 20% of it two days after fertilization. Whelan is focused on identifying where the germline cells – which contain the full genome – at each point in the lamprey’s development.
Whelan says it can be hard to fit in enough time to do experiments of this magnitude during the semester, but that her work over the summer allowed to find encouraging results. “I am certain that completion of this work will contribute significantly to the lab’s ability to study programmed rearrangement of the lamprey genome,” Smith said.
The work being done by both Shackleford and Whelan is a powerful testament to the vital role student researchers play in the academic environment at UK. By giving students the opportunity to focus on such groundbreaking work during the summer, the Ribble Undergraduate Summer Research Internship will play a similarly vital role in maintaining UK’s record of quality research.