RWU student finds her calling in research experience
Within a month of starting classes, she was in the lab of Associate Professor Avelina Espinosa, shadowing upperclassmen and gaining experience and new skills. Soon after, she started caring for strains of Entamoeba, harmful intestinal parasites, and working on signaling experiments to help gain a better understanding of how the amoeba communicate.
She moved onto proteomics, the study of proteins, investigating the actual molecules involved in the signaling and communication. Before the school year ended, she scored a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) with Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR and Espinosa as her faculty mentor, investigating the impact of climate change on Entamoeba.
By Spring 2016, Hackey, from South Kingstown, RI, racked up another full year of research work in Espinosa’s lab along with her first co-authorship on a publication — Entamoeba Clone-recognition Experiments: Morphometrics, Aggregative Behavior, and Cell-signaling Characterization.
“SURF has been the biggest influence — it completely changed my outlook for my future. After last summer, I thought, this is too awesome. I could totally see myself doing this for my career.”
For her contribution, Hackey conducted 14,000 cell measurements from healthy cells and compared the different morphologies or forms to the unhealthy cells she measured during her SURF project. The purpose, she explains, was to differentiate the strains by their physiology rather than relying on genetics: “We are trying to understand the way the amoeba communicate, whether they can tell the difference between their own relatives and strangers, if there is a biological way that they do that.”
At the same time, she adds, the researchers are investigating whether it is possible to differentiate between the pathogenic and nonpathogenic strains, some causing disease in humans and resulting in more than 100,000 deaths annually, and others producing only symptoms. Hackey says distinguishing between the strains and properly identifying those that cause disease will help reduce misdiagnosis and prevent unnecessary treatment with a drug that can cause damage to the nervous system.
Only midway through her undergraduate experience and embarking on her 2016 SURF with the Rhode Island INBRE program, Hackey appreciates the depth and value of her experiences to date.
“I had really hoped to get into a research lab, but a lot of other schools said that was something I might be able to do by my senior year,” says Hackey, recalling her college search. “So, that I got into a lab my freshman year was surprising.”
Earning a slot in the RI EPSCoR SURF program complemented what she had learned during her freshman year, she adds: “SURF has been the biggest influence — it completely changed my outlook for my future. After last summer, I thought, this is too awesome. I can’t abandon research. I could totally see myself doing this for my career.”
Originally planning to be a physician and work with infants, Hackey found herself drawn to the lab techniques and experiments, and enjoyed the creativity demanded when procedures didn’t go as planned — an aspect of research that Hackey never considered.
“We need to take a new and abstract look at diseases that have too long eluded us in order to develop new treatments,” she says.
Last summer’s SURF trip to Pfizer with RI EPSCoR and RI INBRE sealed the deal. Hackey switched majors to biochemistry and set her sights on pharmaceutical drug development.
This is precisely the intention of the SURF program, beyond giving undergraduates a taste of hands-on, open-ended research that transcends the typical academic year lab work, when experiments in class are tailored to work in a prescribed manner. By engaging in realistic research experiences, students learn not only about their field of interest, but also about themselves and what it is like to be a scientist.
After discovering her niche last summer in biochemistry, Hackey worked during the school year in the chemistry lab of Assistant Professor Lauren Rossi, gaining exposure to the pharmaceutical side of her science.
Hackey credits her undergraduate research experiences with introducing her to the wonders of research and providing direction. She says she has performed procedures and gained skills that students at larger institutions only read about.
“My experience as an EPSCoR fellow gave me the opportunity to troubleshoot problems and understand confusing results, which opened my eyes to this side of science,” says Hackey. “Research is such an exhilarating experience, and it is extremely beneficial for all students to be exposed to this side of lab science.
“Identifying my passion for research early in my undergraduate career allowed me to create a plan for my future career.”
Story and photos by Amy Dunkle