SPUR 2019: The Role of Environmental Exposures in Autoimmunity

Background

Environmental pathogen exposures have been thought to be triggers in the development of chronic diseases. The Weller Lab studies the role of select environmental exposures in the development of a chronic autoimmune disease called Sjogren’s syndrome. This female-predominant autoimmune disease affects 1-4 million people in the United States and is characterized by decreased saliva and tear production, inflammation in the salivary gland tissues and development of autoantibodies. Low-level, chronic viral exposures in connection with genetic susceptibility factors are thought to be the underlying triggers of this chronic autoimmune disease. Our lab has focused on further characterizing these viral signatures and identifying routes of exposure in patient populations. Projects in the lab utilize viral-genome sequencing, microarray, bioinformatics, immunohistchemisty and cell culture to define the underlying mechanism(s) of autoimmunity. Ultimately, our goal is to understand the mechanism(s) of viral-mediated triggers of Sjogren’s syndrome to further develop preventative measures and/or targeted therapeutics.

Student Role

This project will involve the characterization of viral profiles in Sjogren’s syndrome and healthy patient populations. The student will work closely with principle investigator and members of the research team to receive training in multiple techniques that may include immunohistochemistry, ELISA based approach to detect viral proteins and antibodies to viruses, immunoprecipitation to isolate viral proteins for further characterization by western blot and mass spectroscopy, and computational biology. Student will also be responsible for assisting research team with literature reviews, basic lab maintenance, preparing results for publication and archiving of data. Weekly group meetings will be held to discuss ongoing projects in lab and to present student’s progress. One-on-one meetings weekly to discuss results and direction of work principle investigator.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

The primary goal of this summer research experience is to offer students the opportunity to gain laboratory experience and hands-on training in scientific techniques, further develop critical thinking skills and to work on a research project aimed at improving the lives of those with chronic autoimmune diseases. The student will also gain experience in extensive literature review, hypothesis development and study design. Together, this summer research experience will provide the foundation for future academic and scientific career development.

Melodie Weller
Assistant Professor

School of Dentistry

My mentoring philosophy is collaborative work and communication for the advancement of science. The student will work closely with the research team and I to receive training in basic laboratory techniques and will gain independence while conducting assigned project experiments. My lab is welcoming and friendly and we are always willing to take the opportunity to teach and answer questions. Beyond daily interaction and communication with the research team, weekly group meetings and individual meetings with me will be held to discuss projects, outline assays to be performed, trouble-shoot issues that arise and gain feedback on progress. This experience will set the student up for the advancement towards their future goals like graduate school and I am happy to guide and answer questions regarding these goals.