University of Arizona picks Biology senior for early entry into Ph.D.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Jessica Wales is on the fast track to graduate school with an impressive background – a stellar GPA at SUNY Fredonia and similarly high-end GRE scores – and a bonus few grad school students acquire through their alma mater--she’s already done top-level scientific research in a foreign land.
The senior Biology major/Chemistry minor from Cheektowaga spent this past summer at Osaka University, a prominent research center in Japan, working in the National Institute for Protein Research.
Between sophomore and junior years, Wales spent 10 weeks at the University of Arizona in Research Experiences for Undergraduates, a program funded by the National Science Foundation that engages students in various research projects.
“It’s pretty exciting,” SUNY Fredonia Chemistry professor Holly Lawson said of Wales’ valuable internship experiences and the doors they have opened. “She’s entering graduate school with a lot of research experience before she even gets there. Not that many students get to do this caliber of research and travel to other countries as undergraduates. This was a very unique experience.”
Wales, who will complete her SUNY Fredonia studies in December, has been granted early acceptance into the Ph.D. program in Biochemistry at the University of Arizona, site of her first summer internship. She starts grad school a month later. That notable achievement is a nod to her academic performance and back-to-back research experiences that took the Cheektowaga Central High graduate, who enrolled as an Elementary Education major, across the United States one summer and halfway around the world the following year.
At the University of Arizona, Wales studied rhodopsin, a protein in the human eye, that’s responsible for absorbing a light photon and starting the visual cascade. It’s also the most studied G protein-coupled receptor and is the target of about half of all pharmaceuticals.
The University of Arizona is one of a handful of REU sites across the country; each brings together approximately 10 undergraduate students to serve in research programs of the host institution. Students are assigned to a specific research project and work closely with faculty and other researchers.
“The doors that opened from this experience were unbelievable,” Wales said. “I met an amazing adviser, Dr. Michael Brown, who I will be working with at grad school this coming January. It was through him and his friend, Dr. Hideo Akutsu, that I did my research in Japan.”
In recognition of her REU work, Wales received an award and an invitation to present her research in a poster presentation at the 2010 American Chemical Society National Conference in Anaheim, Calif. She was also given $500 to cover travel expenses to the conference held at the Anaheim Convention Center.
Lawson is among the biggest cheerleaders on campus for the REU Program. “It’s a fantastic program because it’s not just straight research. Students get to go on field trips, they get experience in resume writing and receive guidance in preparing graduate school applications, so it’s a really terrific experience for them,” Lawson said.
“We encourage our students to go after the REU research grants. We’ve got a pretty good success rate – more than 50 percent of those who do apply get in – but not a lot of students know about it,” Lawson said. “Jessica heard me talking about it to another student in class, and later tracked me down to get more information. I hope more students explore these REU experiences and apply for them.”
It was that sort of experience that led Wales to work with SUNY Fredonia Biology professor Theodore Lee the following semester, identifying microbial species of bacteria in Canadaway Creek through gene sequencing. Her research work involved isolating DNA from a film of bacteria growing along Canadaway Creek. She isolated DNA and then amplified a gene that’s present in all organisms.
The type of research she did at Fredonia is very useful because bacterial communities can contain many different species and the approach she used allows researchers to identify what species are present, Lee explained. This approach has led to the identification of bacteria that no one knew existed before these studies.
“In class, she was a top student, very active in class discussions and truly interested in cells and molecular processes,” said Lee. “She is clearly a bright and motivated student.”
In Japan, Wales received training in protein expression and purification in recombinant E. coli and began laying the foundation for graduate study at Arizona. She was also able to continue research work begun the previous summer with Brown.
“Japan was amazing,” Wales said. “I met so many people from around the world. I have friends from every continent, except Antarctica.” Outside of the lab, she enjoyed discussing world issues and learning different points of view with fellow students and savoring “absolutely amazing” Japanese cuisine.
Lawson says there’s no doubt that both research internships “jump started” Wales’ journey into graduate research. “Coming in at mid-year is unusual. They must be considering her an advanced entering student,” said Lawson, who remembers Wales from her general Chemistry class as being serious, quiet and extremely focused.
Wales, daughter of Dean and Linda Wales, said the REU program far exceeded all expectations and reinforced her desire to pursue a career in scientific research.
“Arizona turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life,” said Wales. “It was the experience that pushed me out of the nest. I went from being afraid to spend the summer on the other side of the country to being excited to spend a summer on the other side of the world,” she said. The REU program at Arizona confirmed that Wales, who changed her major midway through her freshman year, was on the right track.
“My aspirations and confidence in myself were greatly increased. I met a lot of friends from all over the country,” said Wales, who’s now singularly focused on earning her doctorate. “My dad always told me good things come to those who work. If you’re working hard at the things you love, then you’re bound to find something great.”
Though long renowned for its education and music programs, Wales say with great confidence at SUNY Fredonia was the perfect school for her. “I’m not sure if I would have had the same success at a bigger college without the personal attention you find at Fredonia,” she said. “They have a really good science program.”