COMMUNITY PARTNERS: Regional biotechnology and biomedical entities
FACULTY LEAD: Dr. Denise Wingett
“The interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Biomolecular Sciences trains scientists to work as part of an interdisciplinary team to address challenges of global importance while preparing graduates for challenging and rewarding careers in today’s biomedical and biotechnology workforce.”
– Denise Wingett
Biophysicist Dr. Matt Ferguson and molecular and cellular biologist Dr. Eric Hayden have teamed up to investigate a synthetic approach to gene regulation. Specifically, they are working to engineer molecular “switches” in the genome of cells grown in the lab that will allow them to control gene expression, especially as it relates to RNA stability and splicing.
This blending of scientific specialties is at the core of the Ph.D. in biomolecular sciences. The program focuses on preparing students to satisfy the needs of a growing biotechnology and medical community in a 21st-century world.
The first of its kind in Idaho, the program allows researchers to solve problems by transcending the boundaries between the traditional disciplines of biology, chemistry, physics and computer science; this interdisciplinary focus distinguishes the program from others in biomedical research.
Ferguson and Hayden share not only a lab and an interest in RNA World (the self-replicating molecules thought to be related to all current life on Earth) but also Ph.D. student Nathan Redman. Part of the program’s second cohort, Redman did a rotation with Ferguson in 2014, and then one with Hayden the following year.
“Nathan said he wanted to work with both of us on a hybrid of our work,” Ferguson said. “He’s really glued the project together.”
The project looks at how genes allow for alternative splicing, where a single gene can code for multiple proteins. Ferguson also is interested in how humans cope with so few genes in our genome – only about 20,000. The answers to these questions lie in the genes created in his lab under specific conditions.
“If we understand something enough to engineer it, that’s when we truly understand how the genome works,” he said.
The collaboration between Ferguson, who has expertise in instrumentation, data analysis and some cell biology, and Hayden, who specializes in gene cloning and RNA design, has been gratifying for both.
“My collaboration with Dr. Ferguson is enabling me to observe things I thought were impossible to see,” said Hayden. “This is changing the way I design experiments, but more important- ly, I think our collaborative projects will change our ability to design biological systems.”
“It’s been really rewarding to find a partner and join together to share the load,” said Ferguson. “We hope this will be a lasting partnership.”