Biology professor’s research students earn national recognition

(left to right) McDaniel student Fangluo Chen, Biology professor Cheng Huang, and students Harrison Curnutte and Garrett Gregoire
October 24, 2017

Biology professor Cheng Huang and his research students over the past three years are earning national attention for their work with a gene that is a novel regulator of blood cell fate specifications.

Huang identified neuer1 as a post-doctoral fellow, and his students — his lab family — have tackled and earned recognition for research related to this gene since 2014.

Most recently, senior Fangluo Chen and juniors Garrett Gregoire and Harrison Curnutte, all Molecular Biology majors, presented their research at the University of Maryland Baltimore County Undergraduate Research Symposium on Oct. 14, and Gregoire of Taylorsville, N.C., took second place in the Biology/Genetics category. Chen of Westminster, Md., and Curnutte of Taneytown, Md., are off to Phoenix, Ariz., in November for the Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students where Curnutte’s abstract is in the top 5 percent selected for oral presentation among 2000 presenters.

Chen’s talk last fall about her research won her the Best Oral Presentation in the Natural Sciences Division at the Seven Rivers Undergraduate Research Symposium in La Crosse, Wis.

“Doing research with Dr. Huang challenges us and makes us better students,” says Chen. “We’re learning how to think critically and how to solve problems that may or may not have answers.

“I love my research project — there are so many moving parts requiring me to think in many different ways.”

Huang gives his students their projects and then lets them decide how they are going to approach them, Curnutte says, adding that it was rewarding to be at the conference and have someone ask questions about his research because they found it to be interesting.

All of the students applauded their professor’s penchant for challenging them instead of giving them “recipes” to follow in lab.

“Actually it helps us to get a better understanding of the material if we are challenged to take personal ownership and figure things out,” says Gregoire. “Of course if things go wrong, Dr. Huang is there to help.”

Huang’s neuer1 research with his students at McDaniel originated in 2014. Majesta Kitts ’16 took a first place award at the University of Maryland Baltimore County Undergraduate Research Symposium for her work exploring the mechanism of how red blood cells become red blood cells in zebrafish — a topic that may ultimately translate to humans. She cloned the neurexin1a gene, one of six genes in the pool of potential candidates that may cooperate with Huang’s neuer1. The following year, Daniel Sergeyev ’16 and Stephen Viar ’16 cloned two more genes from that pool.

Beginning two summers ago, Chen took advantage of her predecessors’ clones to perform a biological assay using in situ hybridization to visualize in which cells and tissues each gene is utilized in zebrafish embryos. Her collaborative research with Huang sheds light on which of the cloned genes is the most likely candidate to cooperate with neuer1.

Most recently, new Huang lab members, juniors Garrett Gregoire and Harrison Curnutte, took on projects that are extensions of Chen’s research. They each took a different approach to determining the minimum length required of the probe (a long chain of monomers called nucleotides) used to visualize neurexin genes in the in situ hybridization in Chen’s project. Knowledge of this minimal length can profoundly optimize the visualization of genes that are highly similar, which is the case for the six neurexin genes, according to Huang.

Gregoire took the molecular cloning approach that is the hallmark of Huang’s lab while Curnutte took a novel approach using restriction enzymes to generate different probe lengths and found evidence to support a minimal probe length of between 190–500 nucleotides long.

Here are the students’ most recent posters:

• “Novel Strategy to Clone a Twenty-one Basepair DNA Fragment” by Garrett Gregoire.

• “Visualizing Expression Patterns of Neurexin Genes in Zebrafish to Identify Potential Receptors for Neuer1” by Fangluo Chen and Brandon Rozanski with McDaniel alumni Majesta Kitts, Dan Sergeyev and Josh Viar also listed as co-authors.

• “Determining the Minimal Length for an Effective in situ Hybridization Probe” by Harrison Curnutte.