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Gwen Oliver wins 1st place at 20th Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Chemical and Biological Sciences

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Gwen Oliver

October 31, 2017 – Gwen Oliver, an undergraduate student in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department, earned a first place finish at the 20th Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Chemical and Biological Sciences for her poster entitled “Biophysical and biochemical characterization of mitochondrial transcription on chimeric and authentic mitochondrial DNA templates.”  The event was held on October 14, 2017 on the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

The Symposium seeks to display the diverse array of student-committed endeavors and foster the communication of their relevant novel results and concepts. The event exclusively features undergraduate research in all areas of chemistry, biology, and biochemistry with the understanding that progress at the chemical and biological interface requires cross-fertilization from the broadest possible spectrum of these disciplines.  The event featured two poster sessions and posters were judged by panels of participating mentors and other qualified attendees.  Judges ranked first and second place posters in each category with non-financial awards presented at the event’s end.

Oliver, an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Craig Cameron’s lab, conducted research over the summer and, since she was not part of any formal program, had not had the opportunity to present her findings.  Along with Dr. Cameron, Oliver thought the UMBC Symposium would be a good opportunity for her to showcase her research

Oliver has been working in Dr. Cameron’s lab since the start of the Spring 2017 semester.  The Cameron Lab mainly focuses on developing strategies to treat and prevent infections of RNA viruses, but also includes research on mitochondrial DNA, which is the main focus of Oliver’s research.  The mitochondria has been labeled "the powerhouse of the cell," but it has roles and health implications beyond this simplistic name.  Mutations in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and genes encoding proteins involved in regulation of mtDNA have been linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, muscular dystrophies, and other health problems.  Oliver’s project, using Atomic Force Microscopy and transcription assays to elucidate the role of a particular protein in the transcription of mtDNA, investigates a mutant that has been shown to cause death in early infancy.  The goal of her research is to contribute to our knowledge of mtDNA and ultimately help to mitigate some of the negative health effects associated with mutations in or relating to mtDNA.

Oliver believes her experience in Women in Science and Engineering Research (WISER) led her to be a part of the Cameron Lab.  WISER provides first-year women students at University Park with research opportunities and mentoring. It was created in 1993 as a means to retain women in the traditionally male-dominated fields of science and engineering, where studies have proven the highest percentages of dropouts occur among women.  WISER helped Oliver be placed in a lab and was able to help alleviate many of the stresses involved in the process.

Oliver commented on other programs that are similar to WISER such as, Freshmen Undergraduate Research Experience and Minorities Undergraduate Research Experience and stated that not enough people take advantage of these programs.  “It’s pretty easy to get involved in research and a lot of people do.  That’s one of the cool things about Penn State.”

Oliver is currently a Sophomore at Penn State and plans to work in the Cameron Lab throughout the duration of her undergraduate experience at Penn State.  After graduation she plans to attend graduate school and although she is not sure where or what she will study, she thinks that it will most likely be in immunology.