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Students in biology lab.

Women’s eggs and ALS research

Undergraduates’ work has applications for them beyond the biology lab

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

​Central Michigan University senior Alexandra Couch found unexpected love in the lab of biology faculty member Jennifer Schisa.

Couch, from Mount Pleasant, is on Schisa's research team studying the effects of stress and aging on reproduction. They use microscopic worms called C. elegans to do their work.

"I just love them," Couch said. "They are really fun."

She also found a love for research.

Couch, a Centralis scholar and biology major, came to CMU eager to study science. Although she didn't know her exact goal, she knew she wanted to help people. One of the ways to do that, she decided, was through research. So in her sophomore year, she took advantage of the research opportunities CMU offers to undergraduates and joined Schisa's group in the College of Science and Engineering.

"I have always been interested in genetics, and her work caught my eye because it has applications for many people," Couch said.

Research with broad implications

Schisa has received her fourth National Institutes of Health grant, $425,000 for three years, to pursue her research, which seeks to determine how women's unfertilized eggs maintain their integrity for up to 40 years and when they are under stress.

Schisa's previous research has shown that age and stresses cause RNA and proteins to clump into granules. When the stress goes away, the clumps disassemble. The hypothesis is that the granules are doing something positive, and the researchers are trying to determine what that is.

Knowing the answer could have wide applications, Schisa said. Some possibilities include helping women with fertility problems and making inroads into neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

While pursuing those goals, students also are gaining the intangible benefits of doing research, Schisa said.

"Being a part of the lab not only develops their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, they discover that research is fun," she said. "Discovering new things is exciting.

"This is one of the many things that CMU does super well: providing research opportunities to undergraduates."

"One of the best decisions I've made in my life is to be in this lab, hands down."— Alexandra Couch

Benefits that last a lifetime

Couch sees the broader benefits of being involved in research.

"Being able to read and understand research papers helps me in classes now and will help me in the future," she said.

In addition, she said she has developed better time-management skills, determination and patience. "You realize how science is finicky and doesn't always go your way."

Plus, the connections she has made and her involvement in research presentations have helped her gain admission to optometry school, she said.

"One of the best decisions I've made in my life is to be in this lab, hands down," she said. "It makes my college career. It's such a great opportunity to work with a professor, get published, get on posters; it's really cool."

Couch and junior pre-medical student Thomas Yura, of Saginaw, Michigan, also are gaining valuable leadership experience as lab managers this year.

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