Hi, my name is Lonzie Hedgepeth. I am from Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I recently graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Last year, summer of 2016, I attended the Biophysical Society Summer Research Program in Biophysics. I learned about the Biophysics Program through the help of a guest speaker in my genetics class.
My professor, Dr. Conner Sandefur, invited Patrick McCarter to talk about the biophysical properties of DNA, and how mutations in DNA can lead to diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis. Patrick’s lecture, which not only deepened my insight into the fields of biophysics and genetics, exuded vigor and confidence. After the talk, I approached Patrick. We talked about possible summer research opportunities that are available at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and then exchanged contact information. Later that day, I sent him an email, thanking him for a wonderful and informative seminar.
Soon after, Patrick contacted Dr. Sandefur, informing him about the Summer Research Program in Biophysics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Sandefur and Patrick, who had attended the program himself, thought that this program would be an ideal program for a budding research scientist, such as myself, to gain extensive research experience in an environment that would mirror that of Biochemistry and Biophysics Ph.D. programs. Fortunately, I got accepted! After meeting with my cohort, I realized that we were a very diverse group, coming from different backgrounds. At first I was a little nervous, but over time the cohort and I became very close and connected like a family.
During the summer course, I was able to conduct graduate level research, attend lectures and seminars hosted by UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, participate in several professional developments activities, and also socialize with people at similar stages of their academic careers. I conducted my research in the lab of Dr. Timothy Elston, a professor in the department of Pharmacology. My direct research mentor was Patrick McCarter, who at the time was a graduate student in the Elston lab. I never expected to be working alongside Patrick, someone who I greatly admired. We worked on investigating Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases (MAPKs) in budding yeast. We wanted to define time-dependent interactions between the Sln1 and Sho1 branches of the yeast (S. cerevisiae) High-Osmolar Glycerol (HOG) pathway. Each branch transmits hyper-osmotic stress through a MAPK cascade to Hog1 the terminal Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase of the HOG pathway. My role in this project was to use mathematical models to investigate the time-dependent contribution of each branch to Hog1 phosphorylation (MAPK are typically active when phosphorylated). I defined a set of 24 mathematical models that each tested a different hypothesis about the time-dependent contributions to Hog1 activity. Mathematical models provide us with a way to investigate aspects of the biology that are currently not feasible with experiments alone. I then used UNC-Chapel Hill’s Killdevil High-Performance Research Cluster to ‘fit’ each model to an experimental Hog1 phosphorylation training data set. The best ‘fitting’ models were then used to predict how Hog1 phosphorylation would change under different experimental conditions including dynamic hyper-osmotic stress and/or with various genetic perturbations in key HOG pathway signaling proteins.
With the help of Dr. Elston, Patrick, and my colleagues, I was able to present my findings at Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS). In addition to presenting my project, during ABRCMS I was also able to attend seminars, participate in networking, and learn about a variety of potential PhD programs.
While I mainly focused on computational science in the Elston lab, the interdisciplinary nature of the project and the collaborative research environment also allowed me to directly communicate with the experimental biologists who were gathering data needed to build the models. Thus, I learned a great deal about cellular and molecular biology, live-cell microscopy, and genetics.
Working in the lab allowed me to see how graduate students, post-docs, and senior professors manage their time, maintain organized lab spaces, and communicate their unique perspectives in an interdisciplinary research group. I was able to witness how modern scientists work together to solve some of the most interesting questions in the world. I am now using these experiences, along with the skills I accumulated from the Biophysics program, to further prepare myself to apply for Ph.D. programs in the fields of Pharmacology, Biophysics, and/or Systems Biology.
I am currently in a Post Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) at Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). I have kept in touch with Dr. Elston, Patrick, and also Dr. Sandefur! I have developed an invaluable relationship with them. They have become more than just mentors to me. I hope to emulate their perseverance and dedication to help others. They have inspired me to reach out and share my experiences to other young scientists, and to encourage them to pursue their dreams to conduct high-quality biomedical research. I am also extremely grateful to have attended the Summer Research Program in Biophysics. Through this experience, my aspirations of conducting high-quality research are immensely strengthened, and my relationships with scientists developed and flourished. I look forward to the day when I am able to help a young and budding scientist get started on their own journey in science!