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To boldly go: 'Fearless' research focuses on new investigation techniques

By

Steve Des Georges

It should come as no surprise that ASU senior Jordan Roberts is “fearless.” After all, he played both ways as a lineman on the Lakeside (AZ) Blue Ridge High School state championship football team in 2001 and 2002. But it’s not between the white lines that the life sciences major fears not; it is in the laboratory at ASU’s West campus where he is working diligently on the construction of a research setup that could introduce a new set of investigative techniques into the field of heart physiology.

“Fearless” is how Francisco Solis, an associate professor in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, describes Roberts. He says it is the unknown that Roberts tackles with vigor.

“In my lab, we seek opportunities where there has been little work done before,” says Solis, who has worked on a wide variety of research projects alongside undergraduate students since his arrival at the West campus seven years ago. “This means we have to start a lot of things from scratch, which is a challenging situation where the student cannot simply come and use the techniques that already appear in textbooks.

“Jordan has been willing to jump in and learn what needs to be learned. He has had to learn how machines connect to each other and to think through the modifications that need to be done to apparatuses so as to make them do what we want. He has been fearless in tackling the project, not intimidated by it.”

The project that has Roberts’ attention is an apparatus called the luminometer, which measures light output from chemical reactions. It is not an uncommon piece of research equipment, and is relatively inexpensive to operate; however off the shelf commercial luminometers cannot perform complex environmental changes. So, Roberts is building his own luminometer that will allow him to continuously change the environment around cells and assess their cellular changes. 

Roberts specifically will use his newly developed machine to discover how yeast cells react to continued exposure to variable calcium concentrations over a period of minutes to hours. He knows when yeast cells are exposed to calcium that, within a fraction of a second, they sequester it. What he wants to know is how the yeast sequester calcium, what proteins are involved, what signals do they watch for, and why and when do the yeast release it back into the watery center of the cell, or the cytoplasm.

“The point of the research isn’t the machine itself, or any of its future applications, although I’m certain it will be useful in other applications,” he says. “It’s about how the machine will increase our ability to manipulate the environment of the yeast cells and observe their response.

“It’s all about the yeast.”

From the football field to the laboratory has been a journey that has featured more twists, turns and side trips than a country road. In high school, he won debate honors and was a nationally ranked member of his math club. As an Eagle Scout, his troop helped the U.S. Forest Service reseed the area burned by the infamous Rodeo-Chediski Fire of 2002 that consumed more than 450,000 acres of east-central Arizona woodland. Following his graduation from Blue Ridge, Roberts pursued a two-year mission for the Latter Day Saints Church, travelling to southern Brazil where he served as a minister at a local church, helped rebuild houses, visited the sick in hospitals, built and distributed wheelchairs and more. Upon his return to Lakeside and the White Mountains, he eyed a return to school.

“I was interested in medical school, but I was enrolling at Northland Pioneer College, and the college didn’t have pre-med courses, but did have a rigorous nursing program,” says Roberts of the Show Low-based community college. “I started in the nursing program and took as many science classes as I possibly could. I transferred with 70 credits and lots of science.”

His transfer wasn’t so matter-of-fact. He was hesitant to jump into a “big-time” college environment, but knew that ASU was “strong in science across the board.” He overheard his wife, Shauni, talking with a friend about the West campus and the availability of pre-med coursework. He asked questions and liked the answers he was receiving – small campus, student-friendly classes, a learning environment with accessible faculty.

“I came down off the mountain (Lakeside) and talked with some of the faculty and staff at the West campus,” Roberts remembers. “I looked around and I got real excited. I moved down here and got started.”

Roberts enrolled in time for the spring 2009 semester and met with Pam Marshall, who was recently recognized by ASU President Michael Crow as a university exemplar for her dedication to helping undergraduates participate in her research, particularly nontraditional, first-generation and minority students. A New College associate professor, she has mentored more than 30 undergraduates since coming to the West campus seven years ago, many of whom have gone on to medical school. She received a university-wide faculty excellence award for undergraduate mentorship in 2008 and a college-wide teaching award in 2009.

“Between Professor Solis and Professor Marshall, they got me interested in research and got me started,” says Roberts, who, with Marshall’s support, received a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant through ASU’s SOLUR (School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research) program. “I am working with Professor Solis to build the luminometer, then I will work with Professor Marshall to further the yeast cell research.”

“Jordan exemplifies the opportunities that exist at ASU and New College,” says Marshall. “He is embedded in the knowledge-driven enterprise of ASU, and the research he is doing helps to hone his observational and critical thinking skills.”

The skills Roberts is developing could have far-ranging consequences.

“The end result of the project Jordan is working on is the construction of a research setup that will allow us to investigate a much larger variety of calcium signals,” says Solis, who Roberts describes as “the go-to guy.”

“We are seeking to introduce a new set of investigation techniques into the field,” adds Solis. “If we accomplish this, there could be a cascade effect, as the research will be available to other researchers. We thus hope to contribute to the more distant but important goal of understanding calcium responses; such knowledge and its applications are important in medical contexts, especially in relation with the activity of cardiac muscle.”

Roberts says an exciting aspect of his research is the fact little has been in the area of how different cells treat different ions, such as calcium.

“There just isn’t a lot out there to fall back on,” he says. “This isn’t duplicate research. It is meticulous, methodical, and it can be impactful.

“The heart relies on calcium to contract, to perform its regular motion, in and out. We suspect that the same protein pumps that move calcium in and out of cells in yeast are also present in human heart muscles.

“One day, our research will lead to better drugs for heart disease and a better understanding of overall heart physiology.”

There’s another consideration when it comes to the research, says Roberts.

“The research is rewarding because it ‘proves’ to me that all the stuff I’ve been trying so hard to learn is actually real and useful,” he says. “In addition to one day translating into better medical science, the research opportunities we have here show that normal college kids can make a difference, can do something amazing. You don’t have to be ‘lucky’ or ‘brilliant’ to help the cause of science along, you just have to be persistent, look for opportunities, and know who to ask for help.”