CURF Introduction: Me and My Project

Hello! My name is Mika Wesley, and I’m honored to be a current Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research Fellow! I’m a junior majoring in Molecular Biology with minors in Chemistry, French, and Gender/Sexuality/Women’s Studies. My interests include reading, music, rock climbing, and, of course, research!

For the last year, I’ve been working in Dr. Sarah Hainer’s lab in the Department of Biological Sciences. Our lab seeks to discover and understand the regulatory mechanisms cells use to determine what DNA to use (or express by transcribing it into RNA) in specific biological processes, such as when a stem cell develops into a different cell type to drive development or regeneration. Although different cell types (from neurons to blood cells to many more) contain the same DNA sequence within a single organism, the function of these cell types varies based on what parts of its DNA the cell expresses. Most research into RNAs is focused on mRNAs, or RNAs that encode proteins. However, while as much as 75% of a cell’s DNA is transcribed into RNA, depending on the cell type, only about 2% of a cell’s total DNA encodes for mRNA. Therefore, the majority of RNAs produced in mammalian cells are non-protein coding RNA (ncRNA) and may have important roles within a cell. We propose that one role of these understudied RNA species is regulating mRNA expression to determine a cell’s identity.

My project aims to understand the role of a specific class of ncRNA termed enhancer RNAs (eRNAs) in potentially regulating mRNA expression. I investigate this by inhibiting eRNAs from being made at locations for the Pou5f1 gene and seeing if that has an effect on mRNA expression. For the Pou5f1 gene, there are 8 eRNAs produced at enhancer elements for this gene (Figure 1).  I have already made significant progress producing the 8 desired cell lines for my project, each with one of these eRNAs inhibited. Currently, I am working on continuing to generate these cell lines and optimizing a method called nascent RTqPCR that I will use to measure eRNA and mRNA expression levels in these cell lines. Together, my project will help us understand the specific contribution of Oct4 eRNAs in regulating mRNA expression, providing important insight into the mechanisms through which eRNAs function and cells determine what parts of their DNA to utilize.

Through working in a research lab at Pitt, I have gained a passion and curiosity for research that I hope to expand on this semester with the help of the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship. After my undergraduate career, I hope to continue working in research, with a goal of obtaining a Ph.D. in biology initially and then moving to biomedical research as my career. This fellowship gives me an opportunity to continue my research, gain new skills in the lab that will prepare me for my career, and share my work with others.

Figure 1. Diagram of Pou5f1 locus. Depicts the Pou5f1 gene and 4 enhancers, with ncRNAs shown.

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