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Exploring DNA damage with viruses: An insight into on-campus cancer research

Phd. student Gabrielle Lopez pulls out cell samples for her research from the CO2 incubator.
Phd. student Gabrielle Lopez pulls out cell samples for her research from the CO2 incubator.

Cancer has impacted nearly every person's life, making the development of new cancer therapies increasingly urgent. Scientists study cancer at the molecular level, and research at Miami is doing so via viruses.

Gabrielle Lopez, a graduate student in the department of microbiology, studies how DNA repairs itself after it is damaged. Lopez works with microbiology professor Eileen Bridge, whose lab mimics DNA damage in a controlled manner. In order to do this, Lopez and Bridge use viruses to model DNA double strand breaks so they can pinpoint what proteins are involved in the repair process. Not being able to repair DNA correctly is a common hallmark of cancer.

Lopez's interest in her research, which is funded through grants from the National Cancer Institute, stemmed from her own battle with cancer. Her experience informs her goal to make an impact on improving cancer treatments.

Mary Owen, an undergraduate junior majoring in Medical Lab Science and Microbiology, works alongside Lopez. Owen joined the lab after participating in SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science), a two-semester course that gets young Miami scientists involved in researching viruses. Lopez served as a teaching assistant for this course and helped spark Owen's interest in investigating how viruses infect bacteria.

"Undergrad research is the reason why I came to Miami," said Owen. "It's more of a hands-on application of what I've been learning in the classroom."

Being able to mentor students like Owen is Lopez's favorite part about being a graduate student, Lopez said.

"I absolutely love to mentor people and to help them develop critical thinking, writing, and laboratory skills," Lopez said. "Working very in-depth with undergraduates definitely gives meaning to my work."

Graduate school also introduced Lopez to her fiance, whom she met while they were both teaching assistants for a biology lab. Although research is a huge part of Lopez's and Owen's lives, they are also very passionate about science advocacy and outreach.

Lopez is concerned about the current disconnect between public and science.

"The biggest thing to know is that scientists are people, too. We are your neighbors, friends, and just in general normal people," Lopez said. "Scientists need to make an effort to be more approachable by the public and to be able to talk about their research in a general way so we can tell everyone what we are doing."

"Involvement is key," said Owen. "I have personally been involved in the USS Summer Scholars Program and the Howard Hughes Medical Internship."

Both these programs allowed Owen to spend her summer breaks focusing on research. Miami offers these scholarships and many other programs to get more students involved in science. In order to improve opportunities for minority graduate and undergraduate students, Lopez is currently working on starting a chapter of the Society of the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) at Miami.

Lopez and Owen discussed the need for the continual support of basic science research. While the first thought that may come to mind when thinking of health-related research are studies conducted in medical laboratories or at pharmaceutical companies, basic research actually provides the foundational knowledge that is later used at those larger institutions. For example, an academic lab doing basic science research may discover a new protein that plays a key role in a disease and applied medical science research can use this knowledge to develop treatments for it. Basic academic research also provides a platform for the future generation of scientists to learn and discover their career paths. Lopez wants to pursue a career as a clinical lab director studying infectious diseases, while Owen plans on continuing her education after Miami with a focus on medical lab science.

"We need people to discover new things, whether it is as small as a protein or as vast as understanding the impacts of a new disease," said Owen. "Every part of the process is important".