Robert Brooks is looking toward a career in healthcare and will be attending medical school under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force. But his desire to help people through science was partially inspired by his senior research on C. elegans, a worm model organism. “I’d be a liar if I said that a year spent watching worms develop giant blisters hasn’t given me new inspiration to pursue a career in helping people stay healthy,” says the biology major and psychology minor whose thesis was titled “Epigenetic Inheritance in a C. elegans Model of Increased Second Generational bli-5 Penetrance.”
How did you develop your thesis topic?
[Professor of Biology] Phil Meneely is the man who decided our lab should explore the six Blister genes, bli-1 through bli-6. At the beginning of the year, Phil explained to us what the Blister genes were and told us what last year’s lab had already done. Basically, when worms have a genetic mutation in one of these genes, some, but not all of them, will end up developing fluid-filled sacs on their exterior, a concept known as incomplete penetrance. [This] can be conceptualized in layman’s terms as a genetic risk factor like the BRCA mutations that cause some humans to develop breast and other forms of cancer. [Phil] really allowed us to take ownership of our own thesis. He vetted our research plans before we embarked on them, but the initial ideas had to come from us. Similarly, throughout the year, he talked over confusing results with us and gave us practical lab advice when needed, but always left the reins in our hands as to what we would like to do next.
What did you learn from working on your thesis?
This thesis really forced me to learn something that every career scientist already knows, which is that you have to be okay with unexpected or disappointing results, and that disappointing results do not equate with failure [or] a waste of my time. My research was actually reasonably successful in that I managed to prove my initial hypothesis that a certain biological pathway in C. elegans was involved in the phenomenon of increased second generational bli-5 penetrance where the percentage of worms with blisters was significantly higher in second generations of worms compared to first generations. That said, had the data I gathered from my experiments conclusively shown that this pathway was not involved at all, this would not have been failure. … Even unwanted occurrences present us with a chance to learn and grow.
How or why could your work help other researchers or academics?
Work with a single gene in a worm model is never going to have instantly translatable human medical relevance. That said, the overarching findings of this study could potentially be very important if they generalize to mammals and more specifically to humans. If you think of genes whose mutant traits are incompletely penetrant as risk factors, it’s easy to see the medical relevance of better understanding how they work.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of members of the Class of 2014.