Gonzaga Students Conduct Summer Research at UW Labs

Gonzaga students Rhys Heenan, Emma Spiegel, Paxton Carson, Emma Winter, and Ashley Chon
Gonzaga students (left to right): Rhys Heenan, Paxton Carson, Emma Spiegel, Emma Winter and Ashley Chon.

August 26, 2022
Gonzaga University News Service

SPOKANE, WASH. – Five Gonzaga University undergraduate students assisted with biomedical research at University of Washington School of Medicine laboratories this summer.

All five, representing four majors, extolled the opportunity to work in world-class lab settings with high-level mentors. Their research ranged from genetics and the prevention of ovarian cancers to investigating cardiac fibrosis.

The internships in Seattle began in 2018 as an outgrowth of the University of Washington School of Medicine-Gonzaga University Health Partnership, a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership launched in 2016 to advance the health of communities across Eastern Washington through medical-related health sciences education and research.

Emma Spiegel, a psychology major from Issaquah, east of Seattle, worked in the Gale Laboratory at the Department of Immunology at UW’s School of Medicine.

Spiegel said the lab’s focus is "understanding the molecular mechanisms of innate immune activation and response, and on defining the actions of innate immunity in the programming of the systemic immune response to virus infection.”

Her research project involved studies that will provide a model for vaccine developments and evaluations in the future.

“In the current environment with COVID-19, I am very grateful to be working at the UW Department of Immunology and to be studying neutralizing antibodies,” she said.

“It has been a really amazing opportunity to learn more about innate and adaptive immunity and I appreciate the independence I have been given to work with viruses and to gather and analyze data.”

Paxton Carson, a biochemistry major from Bend, Oregon, worked in the Trapnell Lab in the School of Medicine’s genomic sciences department.

He worked with tissue samples from adult mouse brains, studying what happens when the gene LMNA is knocked out. “Specifically, what effect having this gene removed has on the cellular development of the brain,” Carson said.

He embraced the freedom he was given.

“I was taught the techniques needed to run the experiments and how to do the data analysis and have been free to determine what I think is important information and report back to my lab mentor since no one knows what the results should look like,” Carson said.

Reflecting on the opportunity elicited what he’s most grateful for: the experience of getting to work with graduate students.

“Seeing their dedication and knowledge of their specific fields has been amazing and truly inspiring for me,” he said.

Rhys Heenan, a human physiology major from Kirkland, east of Seattle, worked in the Freedman Lab, connected to the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine.

The lab’s work often involves generating kidney organoids from stem cells derived from adult human tissues. Heenan’s project focused on identifying the polarity of kidney organoids by tracking a specific cell type called cilia.

“When the cilia are present in the areas they need to be, and are facing the right directions, the organoid is a bit more representative of a functional adult kidney,” she said. “My project focused on compiling images to describe and visualize how the cilia are arranged, and discussing when the cilia are not in the right orientation.“

She cited the step-by-step progression on the main research question as a clear demonstration of the scientific method.

Ashley Chon, a human physiology major from Portland, worked in the Davis Lab, which focuses on investigating cardiac fibrosis. The lab is part of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology.

Her research involved studying the proliferation timeline of “fibroblasts“ using mouse hearts. There is a window of time after injury to the heart in which fibrotic scarring occurs, and that scarring negatively impacts the normal function of a heart.

“Fibroblasts are the cell types that contribute to the production of collagen and extracellular matrix, which ultimately result in scarred tissue,” Chon said. “Observing the specific period in which this occurs ultimately contributes to a deeper understanding of cardiac fibrosis.”

She underscored the opportunity to work with the hearts from beginning to end — from harvesting them to visualizing the reporter cells underneath a high-tech microscope.

“I am so thankful to the Davis Lab for giving me the opportunity to grow as a STEM student and as a person,” Chon said.

Emma Winter, a senior biology major from Lake Oswego, Oregon, worked in the Swisher Lab, which primarily investigates the genetics and prevention of ovarian cancers.

She collected genetic testing data from patients in the research project.

“Once the genetic testing was updated, I helped to identify the genes in which mutations had occurred,” Winter said. “We are working to find more genetic risk factors for ovarian cancers so that those at risk can take the proper precautions and preventive actions against this disease.”

She relished working with “such an exquisite team of scientists” and said learning from “them was truly an honor.”

“As someone who is planning on going into medicine, seeing firsthand how the research done in this lab directly affects the treatment of ovarian cancers has been such an incredible experience,” Winter said.

“Gonzaga has so many wonderful opportunities to help further your career in any field, but to anyone who is thinking about going into medicine or medical research I highly recommend taking advantage of this amazing partnership. I have learned so much about the medical field and how tightly it is intertwined with scientific research.“

She offered a final blast of advice for other Zags: “Be proactive about your future, your goals cannot be reached by being complacent!”

The students’ summer living arrangements varied. The two from the Seattle area lived at home; one lived in an apartment with other students in the University District; another stayed with family friends; and the fifth lived in a basement of a family’s house – “my mom is friends with them on Facebook.”

All of the students gave shout-outs to their immediate mentors at UW for the summer:

  • Rhys Heenan – Thomas Vincent, graduate student in the bioengineering doctoral program
  • Emma Spiegel – Tony Muruato, postdoctoral research fellow in the Gale Lab; doctorate in biomedical sciences, microbiology and immunology
  • Emma Winter – Barbara Norquist, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynocology
  • Paxton Carson – Hyeon-Jin Kim, graduate student in the Trapnell Lab
  • Ashley Chon - Darrian Bugg, postdoctoral research fellow in the Davis Lab; doctorate in pathology

The summer research program ended with a closing ceremony Aug. 11 at which students gave short oral presentations of their work.

Expanding and enhancing top-ranked medical education in Spokane and eastern Washington.