Mari Brady

May 31, 2019 | The Faces of Undergraduate Research

Featured: Mari Brady

By: Joy Zheng. 

Mari Brady is a sophomore studying biology and mathematics with a concentration in cell biology. Originally from Grayslake, IL, she currently works at the Bao Laboratory.   

What is your project?

There is a protein complex known as the “Super Elongation Complex”. It is essentially a transcription activator. Sometimes, the protein RNA Polymerase II, when it is supposed to be transcribing a gene gets paused. The Super Elongation Complex is responsible for unpausing it. There is a lot of evidence suggesting that it is an activator. However, during my research, I found some evidence suggesting that it is also an inhibitor. My job is to investigate if it actually functions as an inhibitor of transcription, and if so what does it inhibit, why and how does it work?

How did you start your project?

Like with most biology labs, graduate students usually have a very big project they are working on and undergraduates work under a subset of that project. That is initially how I started out. I’ve been in this lab since February 2018.

What prompted you to be interested in this specific enzyme?

I’ve been fascinated by epigenetics for a while. So when I was finding a lab, I was looking for labs that were specifically researching in epigenetics. The reason I am so fascinated with this field is that we typically believe that DNA is the basis for all of our information, but in reality, this really depends on how DNA is expressed and what genes are turned on. It’s just fascinating that there exists so many levels of regulation. Human life is regulated by processes of non-living things, and they have to be well-coordinated with each other. I find this interaction so captivating, and I just want to learn more about how it works.

What do you usually do in the lab?

It’s mostly experimentation and data analysis. It depends on what I’m working on that day because there are so many steps. Most of my time is spent conducting the experiment and making each step of the process happen. It is important that each one is done right for the whole process to work, which usually takes a few weeks.

What is the goal of this project for you?

I’m interested the different ways that DNA expression can be regulated. I want to contribute to the general knowledge base on epigenetics. This is very indirectly related to medical research, but the protein I’m study has been found in leukemia and fragile X syndrome. In the long-run, understanding more about it works will contribute to the world of medical research. I do want to have an impact on the research community overall.

Can you talk about certain experiences that have challenged you?

For one experiment, we needed to do a rescue experiment, which is when you knockdown a protein and put it back in to a cell. For the life of me, I have not been able to get that to work! It’s been quite frustrating. I think a lot of times it’s very frustrating because you can’t move on, even pass the little steps, because you have to do things sequentially. I think learning to deal with setbacks has been a very good learning experience. Also, finding new strategies when your first one doesn’t work.

Is there a specific moment that stuck out to you?

We have these protein complexes, and I was trying figure out if other organisms have the same complex. What do they look like in other species? Humans have much more complex patterns of gene expression than lower evolved organisms. So, I was looking at what types of proteins domains were conserved between different species. That is where I found the evidence that one of the domains that was present in one of the proteins of the Super Elongation Complex was related to a known inhibitory domain. I didn’t expect to see that result at all! It’s one of the moments you realize, “Wow! What I’m doing actually has a result! I can really learn from this and contribute meaningful knowledge.”

What advice would you give to undergraduate students who are looking to do research?

I would say it is important to find a project you’re interested in. I think for a lot of people, it is difficult to find topics you’re interested in when going into research. But, I think you need to study different aspects and pursue what you’re passionate about because if you’re not interested in your own project will not be valuable to you. And lucky for me, I am very interested in the topic I’m researching so that made that a worthwhile experience.

What do you hope to do in the future?

I will be working on this project until grad school. Ideally, I would to continue working on either epigenetics or the immune system. I want to work in medical research and better understand certain diseases and ways around them. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll be researching in the future, but I know I’m getting very inspired to research more in the future from this experience.