Graduate student researches nervous system development

Elyse Christensen, Master of Science in Integrative Biology   

Elyse Christensen, a non-traditional graduate student in the Master of Science in integrative biology, is using state-of-the-art technology to understand developmental processes in the nervous system.

After graduating with a music degree in 2007, Christensen worked for several non-profits before deciding to apply for graduate school. When she found herself directing conversations toward new scientific findings or interesting organisms, she started to consider the move to scientific research. Thanks to financial support offered to Kennesaw State University’s MSIB candidates, she was able to carve her niche as a scientific researcher and biology student.

Now as a graduate student at KSU with funding from an Office of the Vice President for Research grant, Christensen is gathering preliminary data on nervous system development that will go into Dr. Martin Hudson’s National Science Foundation proposal.

“My research is focused on studying the regulation of gene expression during early nervous system development,” Christensen explained. “We all begin our lives as one single cell, and the development from one tiny cell into an entire being with limbs and organs and feelings is orchestrated by spatiotemporal changes in gene expression. I am investigating neurogenin, a gene involved in directing the development of neurons, that works by enhancing or repressing the transcription of other genes.

“Our lab utilizes the model organism C. elegans due to its highly annotated genome, quick reproductive cycle, and the availability of fluorescent, genetic marker strains to visualize where genes are expressed in a live organism. Using high-throughput sequencing, computational analysis, and genetic crosses, I am working to identify unknown genes that are directly regulated by neurogenin.”

Christensen is using the College of Science and Mathematics’ Microscopy Core Facility to access cutting-edge technology that is paramount to her research.

“I conduct a large portion of my work on the multiple microscopes available to me through the College of Science and Mathematics’ Microscopy Core Facility, most importantly, the Zeiss LSM 700 Confocal microscope,” she revealed. “This type of microscope contains pinholes which block out-of-focus light and allow for thin optical sectioning to capture 3D images with high spatial resolution. This technology allows me to image fluorescently-tagged neurons in live worms and create 3D projections of their morphology. My project also benefited greatly from the Agilent 4200 TapeStation system, available through the CSM, which allowed me to run necessary QC analysis on my RNA samples before sending them off for next-generation sequencing.”

Christensen's research and experiences with the technology are set to prepare her for life beyond her graduate degree: “The lab techniques I am learning are highly relevant and will prepare me for further study in a Ph.D. program, but it is the more personal aspects of the MSIB program that I believe are most valuable. Conducting research for my thesis has required persistence when my experiments weren’t working. It has required adaptability and the ability to collaborate with others to solve a problem.”

Christensen’s research has already generated results that she is incorporating into her thesis.

She is currently applying for Ph.D. programs in the field of research, “Ultimately, I would like to have a role in communicating the importance of scientific research to the public, whether that includes developing educational programming, raising money for a research foundation, or directing research communications at a university.”

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