The Viroid Gene and Cell Transition

Tiana Luo, COL ’24, Fort Collins, Colorado

Ten weeks ago, I stepped into this microbiology lab with no prior wet lab experience or any even knowing how to properly use a pipette. My past experiences in research mostly involved data extraction from patient charts and physician notes or identifying techniques used in psychological therapy sessions. Both were intriguing, but they weren’t something that ignited excitement and curiosity; as a result, I decided to spend this summer in laboratory research, and get involved in testing the hypothesis that a particular viroid gene induces mesenchymal-epithelial transition (MET), an understudied yet critical process involved in cancer metastasis. This study has the potential to enhance the understanding in cancer metastasis with certain cell lineages and discover one of its potential triggers.

The mesenchymal stage of the cells are stem cells with great mobility and therefore the cells are able to travel or metastasize to different tissues and organs. Once they decide to settle and grow, the MET takes place and allows the stem cells to become fully functioning cancer cells in the epithelial stage. Our experiments then test whether a particular viroid gene is driving the MET process in a particular cell line. For me, transitioning from working with four charts on my laptop to instructing my hands and mind into carrying out laboratory procedures was both enriching and stimulating.

Before I could start any experiment, I had to know what I was trying to achieve, what I was going to do to achieve them, and how I would be conducting the experiment to reach the results desired. After understanding the goal of the research from my mentors, I was instructed to conduct a great amount of literature review to truly understand the MET process and to determine which markers would be used to conduct the experiment. It was a tedious yet necessary process, and I worked myself from knowing nothing about MET to identifying and selecting ten markers such as transcriptional factors, gap junctions, etc. related to the MET process to conduct experiments. The markers I identified were meant to be significantly more populated in either the epithelial stage or the mesenchymal stages of the MET process. Thus, the changes in the amount of markers between the two stages can potentially indicate the transition of cells from mesenchymal to epithelial stage, which can partially prove the viroid gene to be the driving force of the transition.  

Aside from conducting literature searches about markers, my mentor was teaching me laboratory techniques required for the experiment starting from basic cell culture to more advanced techniques such as immunofluorescence and Western blotting. One of the most challenging aspects of working with cells for a beginner was to always ensure a sterile environment, so every movement had to be very careful and exact. In addition, once I started to learn more advanced techniques, I realized how the number of steps to complete these experiments was both exciting and challenging. It was easy to describe immunofluorescence as “staining the cells with primary and secondary antibodies and observing the results under microscope”; however, the steps behind the simple phrase, starting from cell culture to image exportation in the very end, took me quite some effort to memorize and execute accurately. My mentor taught me under such circumstances to think of each step as “mini games” and I could tackle them level by level to move forward, and eventually feel comfortable with each step. In the end, after multiple practices and several mistakes in between, I was able to finally carry out immunofluorescence independently and collect the first set of data. Overall, I was able to contribute to this preliminary project with solid literature searches and data that will be useful in the near future. 

Not only have my research skills grown substantially, but I’m also lucky to have encountered very patient and supportive mentors who have guided me throughout the learning process. Furthermore, the research experience itself has ignited my interests and curiosities in wanting to get involved in research projects. I will be continuing working in the current lab and further applying the skills I learned this summer into the lab projects. 

I am very grateful for the support and funding I received from Penn Career Services, who helped me navigate my interests and made this valuable summer experience possible.

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2022 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.

By Career Services
Career Services