Putting UND research on the map
For Joyce Ohm, the love of science began in seventh grade with a simple science fair project.
What she didn’t expect was that her passion would lead her to become one of the University of North Dakota’s leading epigenetics researchers.
“For my science fair project, I fed my rats caffeine and watched to see what happened with them,” Ohm said. “I entered the Detroit Metropolitan Science Fair and my project did well there, and I just enjoyed the whole process.”
Ohm, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, pursued her passion into college, where she was introduced to epigenetics — the study of heritable changes that influence how the genetic code is expressed. These changes may result from such factors as environment, nutrition decisions, or lifestyle choices.
“I was in grad school when epigenetics was first being introduced,” Ohm said. “I went to a day-long symposium on it and ended up being fascinated by all of it.”
She went on to do a postdoctoral stint with one of the founders of the epigenetics field, Stephen Baylin of Johns Hopkins University.
Ohm came to UND three years ago and has been working hard to put together an epigenetics group on campus.
“We’re up to 20 labs now,” Ohm said. “It’s a young and excited faculty, and that’s been a big push for me in the last couple of years.”
Ohm is a cancer biologist by training, and a lot of what has been done in the field of epigenetics has been done in cancer research.
“I study how our bodies interact with the environment,” Ohm said. “So I look at how environmental influences like herbicides, pesticides, diets, and nutrition affect a person’s epigenetic programming.”
The epigenetics group has been working hard to build a center for epigenomics and epigenetics research here at UND.
“North Dakota is an interesting place to do research because it has such an aged population,” Ohm said. “We know that many of these diseases affecting our aged population have epigenetic components.”
Studying epigenetics at UND alongside Ohm is Archana Dhasarathy, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.
Like Ohm, Dhasarathy took an interest in science after attending a science fair where someone was presenting on plant genetics.
“I thought it was really interesting how scientists could use mathematics to predict what the outcome of a plant cross would be based on the genetics,” Dhasarathy said.
A native of India, Dhasarathy knew she wanted to study molecular biology, but at the same time there was no available undergraduate degree in the subject. Instead, she worked towards an undergraduate degree in zoology with a minor in chemistry.
She then moved to the United States to get her Ph.D. at Texas A&M University in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.
“I was on my third lab rotation at Texas A&M when I began working in a yeast chromatin biology lab,” Dhasarathy said. “I was really fascinated with how a set of yeast genes was activated, merely by changing concentrations of phosphate in its environment, which led me to the field of epigenetics.”
Dhasarathy started out as a chromatin biology researcher whose goal was to study how genes were “turned on” and “turned off” — in other words, how genes were activated and repressed.
Her lab is now focusing on the “snail gene” and its role in cancer metastasis.
In early embryonic development, some cells have to move in a process called gastrulation, which is an essential first step to form the different organs and tissues that make up the body. The movement of these cells is guided by the snail protein. Snail essentially allows cells to move: if you lose expression of snail, cells do not move at the appropriate time, resulting in loss of development, so the embryo ultimately dies. While expression of the snail gene is essential for embryonic development, it is detrimental in cancer, because here, expression of snail causes cancer cells to move into a process called metastasis.
“I’m trying to identify the epigenetic causes for snail expression and its consequences,” Dhasarathy said.
Ohm and Dhasarathy believe that UND has what it takes to become a prime research facility for epigenetics.
“Joyce and I really want to put UND on the epigenetics map and prove that UND is a great place to do epigenetic research,” Dhasarathy said.
“UND is a unique place to work, and it’s an opportunity for all of us researchers to come together like we do,” Ohm said. “In larger institutions, you would never have people studying all these different aspects of research and interacting with each other like we are able to do here.
“We are able to help move things forward a little faster, and that’s one of the things I love about working here.”