It is not often that a freshman in college is approached and commended for research by a Noble Prize winner, but that is exactly what happened to Archer City graduate, London Steele, now a freshman at Baylor University in Waco, TX, along with her poster group.
London had early dreams in high school of golfing professionally along with attending college to possibly focus on a writing career. But God had different plans for London. She was diagnosed in her sophomore year of high school with Common Variable Immunodeficiency disease. This disease causes ones immune system to use products from B cells to identify and destroy foreign bodies in the blood. Steele’s B cells only make 1 of the 5 immunoglobulins. The one that she does have mistakes the tissues around her joints as infectious and attacks then; therefore, giving her arthritis. Her direction changed before she graduated. She wanted to do something in research to help other people with similar diseases, so she is now working on a major, bioinformatics, the science of collecting and analyzing complex biological data such as genetic codes. She aspires to conduct research after college.
London had the opportunity to join a research lab for her second semester of general biology. The class consists of 24 students and a professor, Dr. Tamarah Adair, who facilitates an opportunity for undergraduates– namely freshman in her 1405 and 1406 introductory biology courses– to conduct research, working under the guidelines of HHMI Science Education Alliance’s (SEA) SEA-PHAGES program PHAGES (Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science). The program aims to increase undergraduate interest and retention in the biological sciences through immediate immersion in authentic, valuable, yet accessible research, by finding and naming their own bacteriophages, a virus that infects a bacterial host.
Steele was not involved in the fall semester research called “wet lab” where students dug for viruses in the soil, named them and used chemicals and other biological matter to test and analyze bacteriophages using bench techniques. However, the spring semester is the beginning of the bioinformatics lab portion of the program, her major, and she was excited that she was given this very unique opportunity to join the program at midterm.
Steele describes a typical day in the bioinformatics lab. “We go to the computer lab, open up the software that we use under the guidelines of the SEA-PHAGES program, and begin our work. What exactly was our work? We annotated bacteriophage genomes. This is possible by using DNA Master, a Windows-platform program that uses multiple algorithms to predict certain factors of a genome, such as where genes start and stop. We were responsible for taking these predictions and running their probabilities against online databases, including NCBI, to determine how accurate our results were. We took this information, and if needed, altered the technical representations of genes in order to find the most logical position and function for the genes throughout the genome.” this research, her class had annotated 4 of their own genes that they sent off for sequencing. They had also completed 2 much larger genomes that had been collected by the previous year’s students (now sophomores). The group put their results into a poster format for presentation at various meetings. After each group had made a poster, Steele’s group was chosen for design by a student vote. Their first presentation opportunity was Baylor’s Scholars Week, where Baylor “dedicates an entire week to undergraduate scholarly presentation.”
Coincidentally, an organization that Steele is involved in, Baylor Undergraduate Research in Science and Technology (BURST), had scheduled for Nobel Laureate Dr. Bruce Beutler to come to Baylor and present his work that gained him the Nobel Prize. The day he attended Baylor was the first day of Scholar’s Week, and her group had their posters set up in the Baylor Science Building’s atrium. Beutler had been attending a luncheon with some faculty and select students upstairs, and as he walked downstairs to head out for a tour of the university, Steele’s group’s bioinformatics poster had caught his eye!
Steele said, “We had been practicing our presentation for the Scholar’s Week judges for over a week, but we couldn’t believe we were presenting to a Nobel Prize winner! Moreover, he had won his prize in 2011 for work that he had conducted in the 90s– work that we paralleled in our lab! He was fascinated with the work we had conducted using bioinformatics tools, for when he had performed his work they were not available.”
He talked with the group for 25 minutes and was very intrigued and interested. He was genuine in his appreciation of their work and was excited over their involvement in this field of research.
Steele added, “Needless to say, we were very excited. We had split into groups for varying times of the day, so the students that weren’t presenting with us were SO proud and excited– we shared this experience and pride as a family, and I am so thankful that I have had the opportunity to be involved with such a great group of students. I have been truly blessed by this opportunity.”
Steele’s difficult major coupled with the five college organizations of which she is a member plus finding time to enjoy the college experience, leaves her little time. But she still has to find time to manage her disease through monthly infusions of gamma globulin on a monthly basis. This is to supply her body with the 4 immunoglobulins that she does not produce on her own. An infusion lasts approximately 6 hours and takes place at an oncology clinic. She must also find time to get enough rest. And she still manages to work on a part-time basis for the Archer County News designing weekly ads for Oodles and Lucky Dollar grocery stores.
It is her ability to juggle so many things effectively and excel in her work at the same time that will make London Steele successful in her future career. I would not be a bit surprised if one day she becomes a Nobel Prize winner herself.
After 6 weeks of conducting