Student’s research advances the field of developmental biology

McDaniel College student and professor discussing research project
October 24, 2018

Garrett Gregoire matter-of-factly points out that his student-faculty research project won’t cure cancer. Perhaps not, but his work does make a real contribution to the field of developmental biology and just might provide the tools that will help some future researcher grow replacement red blood cells in a Petri dish.

“All of science is built upon someone else’s work,” says Gregoire, a senior Molecular Biology major from Taylorsville, N.C. “I like the thought that my project will make future researchers’ lives a little easier.”

Working with Biology professor Cheng Huang, Gregoire made significant progress in determining the minimal effective length of an in situ hybridization probe aimed at identifying where and when during development a certain gene is expressed or turned on. The probes, made up of dozens and sometimes hundreds of units called nucleotides in a pattern that is a mirror image of the gene’s DNA, help scientists visualize where a specific gene becomes active during development.

Seemingly purely technical and distant from daily life, Gregoire’s effort is a critical component to the overarching investigation of Huang’s lab: to decipher the genetic factors needed to coerce cells with undetermined fate to become red blood cells.

An Honors student, Gregoire recently presented his work at the University of Maryland Baltimore County Undergraduate Research Symposium for Chemical and Biological Studies and will also discuss his research at the national Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (which isn’t just for minority students) in Indianapolis in November.

No newcomer to McDaniel’s research labs, Gregoire won a second place at the 2017 UMBC symposium for research on a different gene. Last spring he collaborated with classmates Taylor Bauman of Charlottesville, Va., and Tory Cook of Clifton Park, N.Y., on the environmental Quarry Life project to design and build a complex system to determine the health of a tiny stream fish by measuring how long the fish could swim until exhausted.  

His research experience only heightens Gregoire’s enthusiasm for his most recent project, which he plans to present as his capstone.

“My project finally worked on the second to last day of summer research,” Gregoire says. “I actually saw where a specific gene was turned on. A lot can throw it off the rails so it was one of those exciting aha moments that I won’t soon forget.”

That’s exactly the way professor Huang plans the research projects — authentic from concept through research and capped with presentations made as clear to peers as they are to a roommate majoring in Accounting or History.

Huang won’t settle for anything less in his research lab or in his classes. Huang intentionally chose to begin his career at McDaniel, where research is driven by student learning and not grant acquisition. He designs cutting-edge research projects that are meaningful to the scientific community while immersing his students in challenging, genuine investigations.

“The question is not whether my student researchers are useful to me — it is whether I am useful to them, whether I instill learning and scholarship in my students” says Huang. “Their research projects are not just manageable, they are excellent projects that are scientifically sophisticated.”

In fact, Huang puts so much thought into his research assignments, which are all connected to the investigation of red blood cell fate, he spends most of his sabbaticals recharging his arsenal of research ideas.

And there’s more — Huang insists his student scientists learn how to explain their work.

“Scientists aren’t known as good speakers so developing that quality matters that much more,” he says, explaining that the ability to reach out to the community is important because that’s how even non-scientists come to understand your work. They can’t know its importance without understanding the research.  “I give my students a head start, even in lab reports for my Molecular Biology class, by teaching them how to talk and write about their work.

“My research students know how to present one-on-one with a poster or at a conference to an audience of hundreds of their peers and scientists at the pinnacle of their field.”

Even at a scientific conference, Huang says, presenters can’t assume every scientist is well versed in the presenter’s research. Instead, he helps his students develop the communication skills that enable them to explain their research to virtually everyone on the spectrum, from novice through expert.    

As Gregoire looks ahead to his own presentations, he is confident in both his research and his ability to explain it to a broad audience.

“Here at McDaniel, you form close relationships with professors who allow you to have a deep understanding of the research and a sense of ownership of the project,” Gregoire says. “You manage your own time, run experiments and hold yourself accountable.

“By the time you graduate and head to either grad school or a career, you’ve developed a sense of independence — a confidence that you can do it and you can explain it to anyone.

“For me that person is my father. He asks a lot of questions if something doesn’t make sense to him, so he’s a great person for me to practice with. It helps me figure out what points I should bring up or go over more in the future to avoid confusion in the first place.”

As he looks ahead to graduation and graduate school, Gregoire’s curiosity is pointing him toward regenerative medicine. And his ambition goes beyond cells.

“I’m not completely committed to it yet but I think it would be really cool if we could grow replacement organs in a Petri dish.”   

Senior Garrett Gregoire (left) discusses his research with Biology professor Cheng Huang.