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John Greaves '14

Summer Medical Research Studying Cells


Vacation? Who has time for vacation when there’s so much to learn?

“John is always thrilled to learn something new and accept challenges,” says Jackie Brittingham, professor of biology. “He has demonstrated this in the classroom and the laboratory, but also in his daily life.”

Let’s learn some more about John and his summer work:

Q. Where are you in your class work at Simpson?
A. I just finished my junior year at Simpson College and am very excited to be entering my senior year as a biology major with a minor in chemistry.

Q. Where’s home?
A. I am from Ankeny, Ia. I attended Ankeny High School and was in the Ankeny School District my whole life. Go Hawks.

Q. Tell us about your summer internship.
I am performing a 10-week summer research program at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. The institute was established in 1994 “to make a significant contribution to humanity through medical research by expanding our understanding of the secrets of life, and by improving life’s quality through innovative approaches to the causes, treatment and prevention of diseases,” according to the mission statement.

The research programs at the Stowers Institute focus on basic biomedical research in genetic model organisms as a way to understand how cells function and to decipher what goes wrong when they malfunction. Stowers investigators analyze how genes and proteins control virtually all biological processes; from cell division to cell differentiation; from processing smells to storing fat; from generating memories to regenerating missing body parts.

I am working in the laboratory of Matt Gibson, Ph.D.. Our lab is broadly interested in understanding how the interplay between proliferation and morphogenesis leads to the proper formation of organs during animal development. To address these issues, we use a range of approaches in two different model organisms: the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and the starlet sea anemone Nematostella vectensis.

I am working on a project that deals with analyzing the expression of specific epithelial mRNAs, which will give us insights into how cells polarize and then ultimately specify. If you can understand this than you can understand how cells depolarize and malfunction, which is an underlying cause of many human cancers and diseases.

I was very ecstatic when I got my acceptance email from the Stowers Institute asking if I wanted to be a Stowers Summer Scholar. I had to apply for this program back in February. At the same time I was applying for Stowers I was applying for a couple other programs. I sent in my application with letters of recommendation, transcripts, and personal statements describing my research experiences and interest in biomedical research. Early February was a crazy time for me in the semester, because I was preparing for midterms, and working on my year-long research project all while applying to these programs. For anyone, actually getting one of these programs is a long shot, because you are competing with kids from all around the world, and from much larger institutions than Simpson College. Here at Stowers, they house around 30 summer scholars who are split pretty equally between international and non-international students. So that just makes the applicant pool that much larger.

Q. You and Simpson student Maddie Besack also received a Better Futures for Iowans grant, which allowed you to work with the microscopy facilities at the University of Iowa. Tell us about that.
A. This grant was a huge deal for us. The Better Futures for Iowans grant provided undergraduate researchers with funds to travel to the University of Iowa and obtain the technical training necessary to use their microscopy facilities. We had dreamed about using a confocal microscope for this project, but we never could have guessed we would actually get to use one ourselves to image our Nematostella. This grant enabled us to gain valuable training and experience that we normally would not have access to. There are not very many undergraduate researchers who can say they have driven a confocal microscope by themselves to image and analyze their data. I am not sure if we would have had the ability to use a confocal microscope without the Better Futures for Iowans grant. The confocal data really made this project a success in the sense that we were able to analyze and image our Nematostella on many planes as well as creating movies that moved through the animal’s axis. This allowed us to see elements of our project we just couldn’t see with the microscopes at Simpson. It also allowed us to capture beautiful images of our Nematostella that we used for both our presentations at the Simpson Symposium and the Iowa Academy of Sciences Meeting. These images will also be used for a paper that is in the works for the fall that we hope to get published.

I also was awarded one of 32 regional TriBeta Research Scholarships for this same project. I wrote a grant proposal back in September for the project, it was reviewed by a panel of judges from across the Midwest, and I was notified in November that I was selected for the award. The funds from this award were used to purchase reagents that we used in our experimental design.

Q. What an exciting research project. Could you elaborate on what it involved?
A. Maddie Besack and I worked in the laboratory of Professor Brittingham in the Deparment of Biology at Simpson College investigating the role of the Wnt/β-catenin pathway in gastrulation and early patterning throughout the embryonic development of the starlet sea anemone (Nematostella vectensis). The Wnt gene family is active during pivotal phases of embryonic development, and are implicated in a variety of human diseases. The expression profile of the Wnt genes in Nematostella during early development implies that they play an important role in gastrulation and axial patterning. We developed protocols for spawning and artificial fertilization for Nematostella in our laboratory. We then tested the Wnt pathway inhibitors Alsterpaulone and AEA for their effects on Nematostella development. We predicted that the Wnt pathway inhibitors that we used would disrupt embryogenesis and normal axis patterning. Based on our confocal microscopic findings we have determined that the reagents we tested produced animals with duplicated axes, or two-headed animals. These were very exciting findings!

I personally got started on the project after I had shown interest while taking care of the Stella, which is short for Nematostella, during my sophomore year at Simpson. I asked Dr. Brittingham if I could work on a research project with her for my junior year. Maddie had also shown interest to Dr. Brittingham so we teamed up for a research project. Maddie and I made a great team for this project. We are both very motivated students and together we were very successful and got a lot accomplished. I would have to say my most exciting moment of the project was getting to use the confocal microscope at the University of Iowa, but a close second was presenting at the Simpson Symposium in front of my peers and the faculty members.

Q. Why did you choose Simpson, and how as the College contributed to your success?
A. I chose Simpson, because the minute that I stepped on the campus I knew that was where I was supposed to be. I just felt at home and comfortable, which are important things when choosing a campus. It didn’t hurt that the Biology department was great, and the faculty were amazing. The faculty at Simpson College are great, because they can be your academic mentor, but at the same time someone you can just talk to. Simpson has contributed to a lot of my successes, from my academic success to my research and my extra-curricular activities. Simpson has given me the tools to make my education and my experience my own and I have enjoyed that opportunity. It has allowed me to spread my wings and succeed.

Q. What are your post-graduate plans?
A. My plans after graduation consist of having a place to go to school in the fall of 2014. I am not sure where that will be at this point but I want to attend medical school in the fall so I am working hard on the application process and preparing for the MCAT. I would love to attend the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine. I do believe that Simpson College has prepared me very well for my future as a medical student and as a future doctor. Simpson College has given me the tools to make my education my own. Whether that is doing Independent research in Biology, being the President of the Simpson College Shooting Sports Club and getting the chance to compete in collegiate shotgun events, or being the Co-President of Pre Health Society. Simpson College has not only prepared me academically, but has also helped me develop life skills like leadership, and innovation. If I had a chance to do it all again I would 100% choose Simpson College and the Simpson Experience.

Q. Talk about the faculty members who have influenced you the most, if you would.
A. Well, Dr. Brittingham, or Dr. B as I like to call her, has always been there for me when I needed help with something or just needed to discuss my life plans. I owe her a lot of credit for transforming me into the student I am today. Jackie has given me the opportunity to do research with her and pushed me to apply for these summer research programs like Stowers. The first person that I called when I found out that I had been accepted to Stowers was Dr. B and I thanked her for the opportunities that she has given me and all the help she has provided. Everyone tells you that there will be a couple of people in your life who inspire you and help you reach for the stars and I truly believe that Dr. Brittingham is one of those people for me. Dr. Clint Meyer has also been a faculty member at Simpson that has really helped me develop over the course of my education at Simpson College. Whether that was helping me figure out my schedule and life plan or writing letters of recommendation for me. The class of 2014 was his first set of advisees and he has done a great job with us. The last faculty member is Dr. Adam Brustkern. I call him Brustkern for short, but he has helped me with my academics as well as forming and running the Simpson College Shooting Sports Club. I spend a lot of time in his office talking about chemistry, the shooting sports club, and life. That’s the great thing about Simpson. You can get academic help from your professors, but they are also there to just talk to you. I also have to thank the other Biology faculty for instilling the useful knowledge and bench techniques from lecture/lab in my head. They have helped with my summer research program at the Stowers Institute as well as studying for the MCAT.

Jackie Brittingham reflects on John Greaves:

John’s enthusiasm and curiosity has paid off for him as an undergraduate research student in my laboratory this year. He took on the challenge of writing a small grant proposal to fund his research project investigating developmental regulators in a unique model organism, Nematostella vectensis. John and Maddie Besack have worked countless hours to adapt protocols for our laboratory to the study of this unique starlet sea anemone. He has poured over the literature to refine his research question and identify unique strategies. He is developing not only basic procedures for the housing and spawning conditions but also histochemical and molecular approaches. These experiences will prepare him for a productive and exciting summer research experience at the Stowers Institute, as well as prepare him for advanced coursework as he prepares for his post-graduate training.
John will thrive in the Stowers Summer Scholars Program because it will expose him to new challenges, skills and a variety of new people and experiences. John traveled to Namibia and South Africa as part of my AIDS course in May Term 2012. The curiosity I observed in the science lab seemed to pervade John’s experiences in Africa. He stood out from his peers by being willing to step out of his comfort zone and ask questions about culture, society, poverty, life and death, and in the process I believe that he learned more from his experiences than others did. He embraced the myriad of opportunities for learning about the unique cultures of the peoples we visited and lived with during our home-stay in a rural village. John has traveled extensively and he is comfortable learning from people who come from a variety of cultures. This will prove to be an invaluable skill as he experiences the cultural diversity found in most large research teams.

John’s strong foundation in the basic sciences, particularly in developmental biology and chemistry has prepared him to be successful at Simpson College and beyond, as a curious and confident young scientist who will thrive in the challenges of his career in the biomedical sciences.