Stressing the Messenger

Picture of Lauren Wilson in LabLauren Wilson, an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, has always dreamed of being a scientist. Originally from Lake Elsinore, CA, she spent her childhood inspired by Bill Nye and what she saw on the Discovery Channel. After high school, she attended Palomar College before transferring to the University of Arizona in the fall of 2017.

Before she had ever set foot in Tucson, she reached out to Ross Buchan in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology about joining his lab. Her first week in at the university doubled as her first week in the lab, much to her delight. In the lab, she investigates the life of mRNA, her favorite biological molecule, and how it is regulated under stress.

Researchers in the Buchan lab work with Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or baker’s yeast. Yes, the same yeast that go into making bread and beer can be used to solve the many puzzles of molecular biology. These single-celled fungi have quite a lot in common with the cells in your own body. “In addition to being relatively quick and easy to grow,” says Wilson, “yeast is a great model organism to work with because the cultures smell a lot like a fresh loaf of bread.”

Nichole Eshleman, a graduate student and Wilson’s mentor in the lab, has a useful analogy to highlight the importance of RNA. “DNA is like a cookbook, it holds all the information to make each recipe.  So then if you go over to a friend’s house for dinner and want the recipe for the meal they cooked, you wouldn’t take the whole cookbook with you,” Eshleman explains. “You make a copy of the recipe that you want; this is similar to RNA. RNA is a copy of the DNA that is able to leave the nucleus. Once you get home you then can use your copy of the recipe to recreate the meal you had at your friends! Similarly, once out in the cytoplasm the RNA can be used to make proteins!”

Wilson’s work in the lab relates to levels of messenger RNA in the cell, and how these levels change when the cell is exposed to stress. Stress at the cellular level can take the form of nutrient starvation, high salt content, heat, or a dose of a drug. “When a person encounters a stressful situation, there are things they can do to avoid it. Yeast cells are stuck in a flask with the stressor, so they must adapt in other ways. They don’t have legs to get up and walk away like we do,” says Wilson. “The same goes for the cells in your body. They are subjected to whatever stress you put them through.”

In addition to the science itself, doing research has provided Wilson with a sense of belonging that was especially important to her as a transfer student. It is not uncommon to hear her call the Buchan lab a home away from home. “Everyone has so much passion for what they do. Being in an environment where people are getting excited about science every day is what keeps me motivated when an experiment doesn’t work or a tough exam rolls around,” she says.

Additionally, she is a part of the Undergraduate Biology Research Program, which allows her to work full-time over the summer and connects her with a community of other passionate undergraduates from all fields of biology.

After graduation, Wilson plans to get a Ph.D. in molecular biology and continue doing research indefinitely. Another goal of hers is to stay involved in scientific outreach, so she can let kids know that dreams of being a scientist aren’t too far from coming true.

Lauren Wilson
UA College of Science