ISU animal science undergraduate to present research at international conference

AMES, Iowa -- When Iowa State University senior Jenna Dixon, Mason City, signed up for a summer internship program, she didn't expect it would land her in front of an audience of thousands of biological and biomedical scientists from around the world.

But that's exactly where she landed. From April 24-28, Dixon is at the Experimental Biology 2010 meeting in Anaheim, Calif., to present her analysis of proteins involved in muscular dystrophy. She is attending the annual meeting for anatomists, biochemists, molecular biologists, investigative pathologists, pharmacologists and other researchers with Animal Science Assistant Professor Joshua Selsby and Delphine Gardan-Salmon, a postdoctoral research associate.

While it's not uncommon for an undergraduate to do research, Selsby says, it is exceptional to advance to the status of presenter.

"The number of undergraduates who progress to the point that presentation at an international conference is warranted, is not common," said Selsby who researches skeletal muscular diseases.

Dixon started out last summer working in Selsby's laboratory as part of the Women in Science and Engineering internship program. She continued in the fall as an undergraduate research assistant.

Selsby's research looks at how the proteome is affected by the defective gene that causes Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), the most common, inherited and fatal type of muscular dystrophy. While nearly all research on the disease investigates the gene that causes it, Selsby's is focused on protein changes that occur in the early stages of the disease. The goal is to identify new pathways for possible treatment that could minimize progression of the disease.

Dixon used a relatively new technology to perform the detection, quantification and identification of hundreds of proteins in tissue with and without DMD. Specialized equipment in the labs of animal science professors Steven Lonergan and Elisabeth Lonergan allowed her to conduct the two-dimensional differential in-gel electrophoresis.

"Because two-dimensional gel electrophoresis separates the proteins two ways--based on molecular weight and pH--you're less likely to have overlapping proteins. This is important because it allows the identification of more proteins when compared to simply separating by mass. So we get a better representation of all the proteins in the muscle," Dixon explained.

Dixon did a computer analysis of the data and found 41 spots (unique modified proteins) that were differently expressed in the DMD samples compared to the healthy samples.

"And we found multiple spots where the same protein was under expressed, which no one else has found," she said.

The research team hopes to identify proteins that are differentially expressed so that strategies could be developed to turn up or turn down the expression to normal levels. Selsby's research is continuing and a publication is in the works.

At the conference, Dixon is presenting a poster in a special undergraduate research session, as well as the regular session, which she says, "is an honor."

Even though Dixon has learned a lot about doing scientific research ("everything takes so long") and has enjoyed the experience, she still plans on pursuing her dream of becoming a veterinarian after graduation in May 2011.

"It's been really fun to get results back and find that there really is something going on," she said. "And knowing that eventually in the future it could make an impact on someone's life."