Dr. Tammy Welchert has been the Faculty Advisor for the UMKC Pre-Optometry Society since 2014. Last year the group held an eyeglass drive at SBS and collected 56 pairs of eyeglasses and 39 eyeglass cases.
This year, the group partnered with SBS, CAS, Conservatory, Bloch, University College, UMKC Libraries, and the Schools of Computing and Engineering, Education, Nursing and Pharmacy and collected 131 pairs of eyeglasses and 106 eyeglass cases.
This deserves to be celebrated! All the eyeglasses in both years were and will be donated to the KC Free Eye Clinic that was founded by one of our SBS Alumni, Birju Solanki.
Here are some statistics (from the Kansas City Free Eye Clinic) regarding how we did in 2017:
Number of clinics: 18
Patients examined: 207 (Value = $31,650)
Eyeglasses prescribed: 172 (Value = $11,730)
Reading glasses: 29 (Value = $435)
Small creatures and small gestures mean big success for genetic researcher
Leonard Dobens, Ph.D., is not afraid to admit he spends much of his time with flies. Instead, he sees the beauty and importance of studying these tiny organisms.
Dobens is currently researching the role of a gene called Tribbles
in embryonic development and diseases. He uses Drosophila melanogaster, more commonly known as the fruit fly, as a model system. Dobens’ work focuses on analyzing the common features of the Tribbles proteins that are shared by all animals, including humans, and are important for their activity and during development. He has found that the fruit fly is a great place to begin to understand the basic ways in which Tribbles functions.
“The fly is a ‘fruitful’ place for both testing structure and function
and sorting out genetic pathways,” Dobens says. “The fly uses insulin to control its metabolism, and we can manipulate gene function very easily using powerful genetic tools to determine the effect of Tribbles on cell growth and cell division. We’ve uncovered some interesting new findings.”
Among those findings, the Tribbles gene was implicated in insulin signaling, meaning it is upregulated in exercising or starving animals and dials down insulin release in peripheral tissue.
“The implications of that are enormous — it is the ‘skinny gene’
that, when turned on, blocks fat formation,” Dobens says.
Additionally, Dobens and his team are currently doing genetic screens to find new genes that will work with Tribbles in its cellular functions. In humans, the Tribbles gene has been connected to defects in metabolism, and the fruit fly has shown promise in the testing of compounds for various diseases.
“Demonstrating that the Tribbles gene regulates insulin signaling in the fly has opened up the field to better understand its connection to metabolic disease and cancer,” Dobens says. “More recently, we showed that a human Tribbles variant associated with Type 2 diabetes has the same function in the fly, building on our original finding.”
The effects of this research could change lives. Dobens hopes fly
Tribbles can serve to test small molecules and eventually develop drugs to alleviate insulin resistance in diabetic patients and block insulindependent tumors in cancer patients. And all this began with his work as a biology and pre-med major cleaning dishes in a Boston College lab.
“After four years of washing dirty fly vials — or despite this — I became interested in Drosophila research,” Dobens says. “To choose the fruit fly as a model was such a lucky choice. It has proven an unrivalled model to understand how genes work together to build cells, tissues and whole organisms. Now that genomes are completely sequenced and all the genes in an organism are known, the next great challenge will be explaining how those genes work together to build an animal. The fly offers a chance to accomplish this in my lifetime!”
Dobens, while successful in his own right, knows he can only accomplish these great feats with a strong team of bright, hard-working students by his side, so he applies that same passion to mentoring students. He believes in paying forward what his mentors from Boston College, Harvard Medical School and others in his long career in academia have bestowed upon him.
“My mentors over the years showed enormous patience with me and welcomed me into their labs, which were exciting and warm places to grow as a scientist,” Dobens says. “They were generous in their time, impressive in their knowledge of the subject, and interesting in the ways that they thought about science,” he says. “They led by example. I have strived do science with a human face, as they all did.”
Dobens says his mentors created an atmosphere unlike any he had experienced before. They made learning fun and dynamic, and sought to infuse the latest findings into teaching, all of which he admires and tries to replicate in his classes at UMKC. He believes in drawing upon his students’ and colleagues’ diverse skills to attack a problem from a variety of angles.
“The students at UMKC often bring a level of maturity and training that has a lot of relevance to working in a lab,” Dobens says. “Multitasking when waiting tables is exactly what running three experiments at once is like!”
There is no denying his work with students, both inside and outside his classroom and labs, has paid off. Past students he has mentored have performed and presented groundbreaking research in hormone therapies, won local and national awards in science and engineering fairs, and earned the first and only prestigious National Science Foundation graduate fellowship in the history of the UMKC School of Biological Sciences.
Meanwhile, Dobens’ own research with Tribbles could potentially change the methods health-care providers use to treat prevalent, chronic diseases and the ways in which people who live with them cope — and it all started with a fly.
Whether it’s the diminutive animals he studies in his lab or the detailed guidance he offers his students, Dobens has proven the smallest things in life can have the biggest impact.
How zebra fish are helping this researcher understand human development in a brand-new way
Inside the UMKC School of Biological Sciences, you’d expect to find classrooms, labs, offices and study spaces.
What you might not expect to find is a room filled, floor-to-ceiling, with fish tanks.
The space resembles something like a high-tech pet store, without all the colored rocks and miniature castles. It’s kept at a balmy 82 degrees, and a complex filtering system runs through each tank, keeping the water clean and at the right salinity.
It’s all part of the research being conducted by Hillary McGraw, Ph.D., an assistant professor of cell biology and biophysics. She’s spent most of her academic career studying the zebra fish and what their development can teach us about human development.
Despite the obvious differences in size, habitat and biology, zebra fish and humans share some of the same developmental processes. McGraw says there is a lot to be learned about humans by studying these tiny organisms.
“The really amazing thing about zebra fish is that they are fertilized and develop outside of the mother,” she says. “So we can watch really early processes in formation because they’re just in water and not inside another organism.”
Another great thing about zebra fish is that they’re essentially transparent, meaning researchers can observe their cell movements in real time.
McGraw pulls out a laptop and shows a video of a two-day-old zebra fish embryo. Its cells have been biologically engineered to emit a glowing, green color, so she can observe how they move through the body.
“We can see a lot of things happening that you couldn’t see in other animals,” McGraw says. “Being able to take live video of the processes I’m studying is such a powerful tool.”
When you picture cancer research, you may think of patients in a hospital, receiving a new treatment or taking part in the study of a new medication. Those kinds of studies, however, take place near the end of the research process.
McGraw and her zebra fish are, as she puts it, at the “starting point of cancer research.”
Many cancers begin at the very earliest stages of human life – within a developing embryo. The cancer will take a certain process that was used in the developing embryo and reactivate it in the adult, which helps it to invade cells throughout the body.
McGraw hopes her work will help inform what goes wrong during cancer cell movements, and how to stop cancer in its earliest stages.
“When you have just a tumor, a tumor can be removed. But once the cancer cells start to move throughout the body, that’s when things really go wrong,” she says. “So if we can figure out how to stop that, I think that is one of the critical points in cancer biology.”
McGraw’s work could also help treat hearing impairment in humans. Zebra fish — like many types of fish — have a sensory system that allows them to sense changes in water currents.
The cells that make up the sensory system in zebra fish are very similar to hair cells within the human ear – with one very important difference.
“These cells in our ears – they don’t grow back, which is why we go deaf. When they’re damaged, they’re just gone,” McGraw says. “But in fish, these cells are actually able to grow back.”
Understanding how fish are able to regrow their sensory cells could help researchers understand how to regrow the cells in human ears after hearing loss has occurred.
Inside her brand-new lab space, McGraw pulls out a petri dish and places it under a microscope. In the dish are several zebra fish that she estimates to be three — no, four — days old.
“They’re very small. You can kind of see them swimming around in there,” she says. “At this stage they have nice big eyes, and they’re starting to hunt for food.”
As she peers carefully into the microscope, the obvious question arises: Do you have fish at home? She laughs.
“I actually don’t. It’s so much easier to have this controlled environment here. And I have a cat, so those don’t mix very well.”
After less than a year at UMKC, McGraw’s research is still in its preliminary stages. She hopes, however, that her work will help form some of the questions researchers are asking many years from now.
“Every time you answer one problem, it kind of opens up the next question,” she says. “That’s what I really like about science, is that it’s constantly evolving and progressing.”
Hillary McGraw, Ph.D.
Assistant professor of cell biology and biophysics, School of Biological Sciences
Developmental biology, organ formation in embryos.
Ryan Mohan, Ph.D., explores the role a protein complex plays in cell mutations.
What is the focus of your research?
Our team investigates how multiprotein complexes protect the brain. Learning more about the structure and function of these multiprotein complexes will help us understand why mutations, which can often occur, lead to many different diseases. In a number of neurodegenerative diseases, we know which proteins malfunction, but we don’t know precisely how these malfunctions lead to disease and possibly death.
What are the practical applications of your research?
This research could open the door to curing terrible neurodegenerative diseases such as spinocerebellar ataxia and Huntington’s. I think we are on to something and getting closer to finding the truth about these gene mutations.
Any recent discoveries?
We are studying the SAGA protein complex, which normally protects the eyes’ nervous systems from damage. We already knew SAGA could regulate gene expression – helping to decide whether to turn genes on or off. We looked for additional functions and found the complex is also a major regulator of the cytoskeletal networks that maintain cell structure and shape. This may help us understand why damaging SAGA can lead to miscommunications in the brain and possible degeneration.
How did you get interested in molecular physiology?
I was pursuing my Ph.D. at a time when it was becoming clear how critical genes and multiprotein complexes are to every aspect of body function. Filling the gaps in the scientific knowledge seemed important to me. I enjoy the day-to-day pursuit of discovery in our research.
What is a typical day like in the lab?
It is bustling. Our team has a senior scientist, two graduate students and 10 undergraduates, each working on one small part of the larger project – understanding how SAGA works to keep the nervous system healthy. We hold Skype calls with collaborators in Israel or other countries, and we meet after dinner for a lab meeting to share progress, troubleshoot difficult experiments and share new ideas.
Undergraduates are an important part of our team. They start in the lab after their freshman or sophomore year. I let them try different tasks and figure out what part of the research best suits them, then they practice and take off! We recently submitted a paper to the Journal of Cell Biology that listed six undergraduates as co-authors.
Ryan D. Mohan, Ph.D.
Assistant professor, School of Biological Sciences, Division of Cell Biology and Biophysics
Understanding the function of
multiprotein complexes critical for neuroprotection
Exploring new ways to treat cancer and other diseases
In most research, there’s no such thing as “minor details” or “the small stuff.” This is especially true for Xiaolan Yao, Ph.D. Her research team makes and uses three-dimensional models of proteins, and for those models to be accurate, every atom counts.
She and her team — currently two graduate students and two undergraduates — work with relatively large protein molecules, or macromolecules. These molecules are still far too small to be “seen” by conventional methods, but their three-dimensional structure — how the atoms in a macromolecule are arranged — can be determined by techniques such as X-ray crystallography or magnetic resonance spectroscopy, tools that Yao and her team use routinely to “visualize” the proteins they study.
Yao, an associate professor in the Division of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry in the School of Biological Sciences, is investigating the structure and function of lipid transfer carriers, proteins that are essential to many processes inside every human cell. Despite the tiny scale of her research, its implications are huge, for everything from cancer and diabetes to how people age.
“These proteins move greasy lipid molecules from one part of the cell to another,” says Yao, who also teaches undergraduate and graduate biochemistry classes. “I tell my students they can think of a cell as a society, and these proteins as the workers, or as the different kinds of machines needed to do different jobs.”
Yao, whose research is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, says many lipid transfer proteins also appear to have regulatory functions, turning certain cellular processes on and off.
Yao’s research focuses on just one protein, known as CERT, short for ceramide transfer protein. Ceramide is a group of waxy molecules that are important components of the cellular membranes and regulators of a variety of cellular processes. Discoveries regarding how CERT works would most likely apply to other lipid transfer proteins, too. And gaining a better understanding of how CERT works could help combat several diseases.
“For example, there is evidence that CERT is hijacked by pathogens such as Hepatitis C virus for its replication inside the host cell,” she says. “That’s also true with chlamydia, a sexually transmitted, intracellular bacterium.”
It also appears that certain cancer cells make a lot more CERT protein than normal cells to evade chemotherapeutic drugs.
“If we can find an effective way to inhibit CERT, we could develop more effective cancer therapies,” Yao says.
She also says such applications would be up to other research teams “down the road.” But to a biochemist like her, she is completely satisfied with the basic research of gaining a better understanding and appreciation of the beauty and elegance of the molecules themselves. Her work studying the protein’s atomic structure and how that allows it to communicate with other molecules has its own challenges and rewards — and will enable and underpin later-applied research.
Yao, who grew up in China’s Henan Province, earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry at Zhengzhou University. Her father, Qiming Yao, was a chemistry professor there and always pushed her to do her best.
After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in China, where more industrial technician positions rather than research jobs were available, she applied to U.S. graduate schools, and was accepted to a doctoral program at Iowa State University. There she was inspired by the work of Mei Hong, Ph.D., an assistant professor who became her Ph.D. advisor.
Hong got Yao interested in using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to determine how atoms were arranged in proteins to form elaborate three-dimensional structures. Yao said she also benefited tremendously from her postdoctoral training in the lab of Mike Rosen, Ph.D., at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
She came to UMKC in September 2010, in part, she says, “because the atmosphere seemed so collegial and helpful, and that has been true. I have many wonderful colleagues.” Yao credits UMKC faculty members Samuel Bouyain, Marilyn Yoder and Brian Geisbrecht, who is now at Kansas State University, with helping her advance her use of X-ray crystallography.
It’s also clear, watching her display and explain her 3-D molecular models, that she finds her quest for greater fundamental knowledge and understanding of protein structures and cell functions exciting. And she enjoys sharing her enthusiasm with her students and colleagues.
“Why do any of us do what we do?” she says. “It should be because it is fun!”
Xiaolan Yao, Ph.D.
Associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, School of Biological Sciences
Using X-ray and magnetic resonance techniques to understand lipid protein macromolecules vital to many cell functions and regulation
Secured nearly $400,000 in grants for research involving cellular processes; 2016 UMKC Trustees’ Faculty Scholar Award
Joined UMKC: 2010
“Seeing” atom by atom
Xiaolan Yao’s work involves large molecules, known as macromolecules. Yao uses advanced techniques such as X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to detect how the atoms in a macromolecule fit together. Here are descriptions of two of those techniques
Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy
Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, commonly known as NMR spectroscopy, uses the magnetic properties of some atomic nuclei to determine the physical and chemical properties of atoms or the molecules that contain them. The atoms, when put in a magnetic field, will absorb and re-emit electromagnetic radiation in a way that can be measured and interpreted to figure out its structure. (NMR is also used in medicine for MRI, magnetic resonance imaging.)
X-ray crystallography shoots a focused X-ray beam at a crystal at a specific angle and then measures the angles and intensities at which the X-rays are deflected or “diffracted.” The data from the diffractions indicate the atomic structure of the crystal. Also known as X-ray diffraction or XRD analysis.
Understanding insect immunology may lead to new ways to decrease the transmission of infectious diseases
Meet the tobacco hornworm. It’s a bright green caterpillar striped diagonally with white lines bordered by black dots. It grows up to be a moth, its formal name being manduca sexta.
Now meet Xiao-Qiang (Sean) Yu, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry. At his UMKC lab, Yu works with hundreds of these insects — as well as fruit flies and mosquitoes — to unlock the secrets of immunity.
“We are trying to understand how manipulation of the mosquito immune system can control/decrease transmission of infectious diseases such as malaria, Zika, dengue, West Nile and yellow fever,” Yu says. “We are also trying to understand how manipulation of the insect immune system can help control agricultural insect pests.”
Yu grew up in rural southern China and initially viewed college as a means of finding a good job away from the countryside. A passion for science came later. Early on, Yu aspired to find a cure for cancer but eventually gravitated to his current research interest. Though unrelated to cancer research, the study of insect immunity could curb the spread of human diseases, which Yu says is still one of his goals.
Humans are protected by two facets of the immune system. One arm of the immune system is our acquired (or adaptive) immunity, familiar to most of us through news reports about AIDS, polio and other diseases. Upon encountering new viruses or bacteria, our bodies “learn” to recognize and destroy them. Vaccines work on this principle. Our innate immunity, by contrast, is with us from birth, does not change during our lifetime and responds to infectious diseases in a nonspecific manner.
Insects lack the antibodies and lymphocytes necessary for acquired immunity, but they are hardly defenseless. “Insects, although much simpler than humans, possess a highly sophisticated innate immune system that can defend against various pathogens,” Yu says. “Knowledge gained from the insect innate immune system can help us better understand the more complicated human innate immune system.”
Specifically, Yu is studying how certain proteins affect the insect’s immune response. Proteins that thwart immunity could be useful in insect control. Those that boost immunity might help humans. The tobacco hornworm offers a distinct advantage because its large size — up to 4 inches — provides sufficient material for biochemical studies.
Yu’s lab has discovered a group of at least four proteins, called C-type lectins or immulectins, in the tobacco hornworm that help its blood cells fight off pathogens. He’s now learning more about how these immulectins recognize and latch on to invading microbes.
A recent finding, he says, is that fruit flies possess more than one particular signaling pathway, called Toll pathways, which relay instructional messages and likely are important in defending against pathogens. In this regard, fruit flies are more like humans than previously thought, because we have 10 similar pathways.
This discovery, Yu says, has implications for understanding both human immune systems and the evolution of innate immunity.
Another newer finding is that some proteins in the insect’s midgut may play a significant role in the resistance that insects develop to crops that are genetically engineered to kill the pests that eat them. These crops are modified with genes from the soil bacterium bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which produces insectkilling proteins. A better understanding of resistance, Yu says, could lead to better genetically modified crops.
Yu hopes to take this research in a new direction to understand just how the midgut proteins affect Bt resistance – “particularly in mosquitoes, so we can use Bt to control mosquitoes more effectively.”
Because it takes a long time to develop a totally new product, Yu says his goal is to enhance existing ones, particularly those used for pest control.
“You can add something to make a new recipe, and then it can better deter pests,” he says.
Xiao-Qiang (Sean) Yu, Ph.D.
Professor, School of Biological Sciences
Innate immune responses modulated by plasma proteins and expression of antimicrobial peptides regulated by signal transduction pathways in a model insect, the tobacco hornworm
Identification of proteins that influence insect immunity; appointment to the Vector Biology Study Section at the National Institutes of Health
Incoming freshmen receive a jump start with science orientation
This summer as the hum of cicadas was at its height and most incoming college freshman were wrapping up summer jobs and packing their duffels, 111 UMKC students were already settled on campus as willing recruits to Biology Bootcamp, a one-week orientation that helps familiarize first-year students with the rigorous expectations of the science programs.
“We recognize the difficulty some students have making the transition to college,” said Tammy Welchert, director of student affairs and academic advising for the School of Biological Sciences.
It’s our commitment to take any student who qualifies and is interested.”
Biology Bootcamp is open to any science major enrolled in Biology 108 or 109. The program includes real lectures, homework, note-taking skills, study tactics and test-taking strategies.
“We want to set expectations and familiarize the students with campus,” Welchert said. “But one of the things we really value is getting to know these students right off the bat.”
This was the third year of the program and it continues to grow and expand.
“The first year we had 36 students. The next year we had 96. This time we had upper classmen mentoring each ‘mob’,” she said of the small groups named for kangaroo communities.
While the camp is not for credit, students agree that it is worthwhile.
“I’d heard in high school about the speed of the lectures,” said Cooper Redington, a freshman in biology. “I thought I was prepared, but they were much faster paced than I expected.”
Beyond the classroom preparation, Redington found there were other components of the week that were beneficial.
“It helps because you move in with a smaller crowd and everyone here has a similar major. It was beneficial to meet people who are focused on doing well,” Redigton said.
Freshman Jamie Tabron agrees.
“Bootcamp was very intense,” she said. “We had five assignments a day and went from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. It really prepared me a lot for the style of teaching and testing.
Tabron, who is interested in studying biomedical engineering, recommends the program.
“Bootcamp was a great way to get used to living at college. The week really helped me with the transition. It was more than biology. It makes you confident.”
Jeffrey Price, Ph.D., associate professor at the UMKC School of Biological Sciences, is an author of two of the seven key publications on circadian rhythms that led up to this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Research in this field contributes to better understanding of the human biological clock, translating into potential therapies to help people who work night shifts which disrupt the body’s natural sleep cycle and can alter hormonal and metabolic balance. Studies have associated shift work with high blood pressure, increases in illnesses and injury, mental and emotional strain, and diseases such as diabetes and cancer.
“The biological clock is a powerful force,” says Price, who examines fruit flies, which have 24-hour sleep-wake cycles. “Our research may be applicable also, for example, to patients undergoing chemotherapy. Those experienced with chemotherapy have noticed that drugs have more effect during certain times of day.”
The Nobel committee awarded the prize to Jeffrey C. Hall, retired from Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.; Michael Rosbash, Brandeis University; and Michael W. Young, Rockefeller University in New York for their discoveries on the molecular mechanisms that control circadian rhythms. Price worked with Young before he joined UMKC in 1999.
Here are the two publications Price co-authored:
Price is the primary author on a 1998 paper published in Cell. The paper mentions Price and Young’s analysis of DBT, the brain chemical that helps trigger the sleep mechanism that is still the focus of Price’s current research. Price and Young worked together for six years from 1989 to 1995 at Rockefeller University.
Price is second author on another cited paper from 1994, published in Science, about a protein found in the eyes and brain that’s blocked by a chromosome mutation that stops circadian rhythms.
“Dr. Price was a very important part of the research that led to these Nobel Prizes,” says Theodore White, Ph.D., dean of the School of Biological Sciences. “We are proud to have him and his laboratory as an area of active research in the School of Biological Sciences.”
The school recently hired Stephane Dissel, Ph.D., assistant professor, who investigates the circadian clock and stress. Other UMKC faculty in other schools also study circadian rhythms.
“Circadian rhythms are a growing and important research area for UMKC,” White says.
Jeffrey Price, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Division of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, School of Biological Sciences
Post-translational control of circadian rhythms and the links between apoptosis and circadian rhythms