Above the level

On a typical day in the biology lab last summer, you could find Megan Lee ’15, Taylor Mitchell ’15 and Jenna Meredith ’15 working in the tissue culture hood either sorting cells, tagging cells with antibodies, or isolating proteins and ribonucleic acid.

The trio of biology majors, all planning careers in medicine, worked with biology professor Jason Rawlings for about three months as part of Furman’s summer research program and continued their immunology-based research on into the school year. Kellie Bingham ’14 worked with Professor Rawlings last summer and contributed data for the poster but did not travel to the meeting.

The undergraduate students recently presented the results of their research at the 53rd Midwinter Conference of Immunologists in Asilomar, Calif., and beat out graduate students from Duke, UCLA, Stanford, NYU and other prestigious universities to win the Council Award, given to the most outstanding graduate student poster at the meeting. Their poster was entitled, “Defining the Roles of Calcium Mobilization and Protein Kinase C in the Initial Decondensation of Chromatin During T cell Activation.”

Research in the Rawlings lab focuses on the molecular mechanisms that control the proliferation of T cells, which are a critical component of the immune system. Control of their proliferation is absolutely essential; otherwise pathologies such as leukemia, autoimmunity or immunodeficiency can result.  While a postdoctoral fellow at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Rawlings discovered that the way in which chromatin (DNA and associated proteins that package it in the nucleus) is configured controls whether or not a T cell will proliferate. During activation of the immune system, this chromatin is reconfigured which allows proliferation to occur.  Students in the Rawlings lab determined that both intracellular calcium and a protein called Protein Kinase C are essential for this reconfiguration.

“I’m exceptionally proud of the accomplishments of my students.  It speaks to the quality of education they receive at Furman,” Rawlings said. “The opportunity to do cutting-edge research is what makes Furman unique among its peer institutions.  For me, the reward is working alongside such bright, enthusiastic, and dedicated students.”

“I felt so honored to know that the council at this conference wanted to recognize our research and thought it was competitive with graduate student work,” said Meredith, a biology and communications major from Marietta, Ga.

For Mitchell, her research experience confirmed her plan to attend medical school after graduation.

“Summer research has sparked my true passion for science,” said Mitchell. “Being able to acquire your own data and present it to individuals that have been writing the immunology textbooks that you have been reading for class is amazing.”

Rawlings said they plan to publish their work, along with that of former student researcher Kellie Bingham ’14, in a professional journal. Students will be presenting their research at Furman Engaged! in April.