Highlight on undergraduate research: Shayne Wierbowski

The Aquinas Photo / Sammi Shea SHAYNE WIERBOWSKI shines in his undergraduate research experience working with Timothy Foley, Ph.D., and George Gomez, Ph.D., on protein targeting in oxidative stess.

The Aquinas Photo / Sammi Shea
SHAYNE WIERBOWSKI shines in his undergraduate research experience working with Timothy Foley, Ph.D., and George Gomez, Ph.D., on protein targeting in oxidative stess.

Matthew Reynolds
Science & Tech Editor

A junior biochemistry, cell and molecular biology and computer science double major pursues his passions for scientific inquiry through research opportunities. Upon entering The University, Shayne Wierbowski aspired to pursue a career in research, and his early inquiry-driven interest inspired him to enroll in the cell biology course taught by George Gomez, Ph.D., as a first-year student. The course taught Wierbowski laboratory techniques such as Western blotting, gel electrophoresis, immunocytochemistry and vital staining, to name a few. However, these skills only set the stage for a much larger project: the independent research project. Wierbowski cites the project as his first exposure to research.

“The independent research component of the laboratory section truly was crucial to developing the techniques and approaches that I currently use,” he said.

Wierbowski’s desire to continue inquiry-driven learning deepened when he shadowed several graduate students working with Timothy Foley, Ph.D., following his first year. During the summer, Wierbowski analyzed frozen rat brains by separating homogenized brains into distinct fragments of those that had formed disulfide bonds with other cellular components from those that were reduced. While in the lab, Wierbowski worked with a phenylarsine oxide (PAO) column, Western blots and glutathione ratios. Wierbowski said the experience allowed him to develop his long-term research goals, and his current work is an offshoot of his first summer here.

During his sophomore year at The University, Wierbowski joined the honors program where he began collaboration with Foley and Gomez. Working predominantly with Foley, Wierbowski built upon his work on the glutathione ratios in rat brains by focusing more specifically on protein oxidation in brains under moderate to high oxidative stress. According to current primary scientific literature, redox coping pathways such as free radical elimination are well known, but the mechanisms of protein oxidation remain elusive. His work with Foley focuses on the triggers for thiol oxidation, which are chemical reactions that involve electron loss from sulfhydryl groups on the amino acid cysteine.

The research, as always, is a work in progress, but the results from Wierbowski’s work indicate that oxidation of protein thiols is not random but is directed at specific proteins. While he primarily uses biochemical techniques to analyze his results, Wierbowski also collaborates with Gomez, as his expertise in cellular biology helps guide the work from isolated rat brains to larger implications on in vitro manipulations.

So what does it all mean? How does the analysis of rat brains affect the day-to-day lifestyles of everyone else? The research into oxidative stress bears relevance to the rapid metabolism of the brain. The brain’s oxidation of simple sugars outpaces nearly every other organ, and the pathways that Wierbowski studies relate to the means by which the brain protects itself against free radical buildup associated with rapid metabolism, which gives further insight into nervous system disorders that affect the elderly.

During the end of the fall semester Wierbowski wanted to learn to new research techniques, so he decided to apply for research positions over the summer. Wierbowski was accepted into Princeton’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program in Molecular and Quantitative / Computational Biology. During the summer, he received a stipend for food and housing, and for nine weeks he worked with the worm-like model organism C. elegans. He worked with Principal Investigator Colleen Murphy to determine which genes in C. elegans are important in regulating reproductive aging. Wierbowski learned lab techniques such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and insertion of transposons into the C. elegans genome. The research explored the possibility of genome-wide mutagenesis, which could extend the reproductive span of C. elegans organisms. In addition, Wierbowski analyzed previous data, collected from the research team, on C. elegans using computational methods.

Following his undergraduate studies at The University, he hopes to earn a doctorate in a program that matches his specific interests.

“My BCMB and computer science double major may allow me to pursue research into either gene or protein modeling,” Wierbowski said.

Thus, the skillset afforded through experience in laboratory techniques in cellular biology and biochemistry along with his interest in computer science will allow his unique interests to coincide.

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