Maria Gomez is a senior double-majoring in Cell and Molecular Biology and French. She is writing her Honors Thesis, in Cell and Molecular Biology, on 22Q11 Deletion Syndrome, a genetic mutation strongly correlated with schizophrenia. She is hoping that her project will help future researchers dig deeper into the potential genetic factors behind this mental illness, and sees it as an opportunity to conclude her undergraduate studies with a worthwhile crowning endeavor.
Despite the natural complexity of her project, Maria explains it extremely well. Her research focuses on a micro peptide known as “Pants,” which stands for Plasticity Associated Neural Transcript Short. “Scientists like to think they’re funny,” she says. Pants is underproduced in cells affected by the 22Q11 Syndrome. The micro peptide appears to affect cognition, and may be key to explaining why 25% of people with 22Q11 end up developing schizophrenia. However, previous researchers have had a tough time producing and isolating Pants for further study. Maria’s project aims to do just that.
Moving this area of research forward has clear real-world implications. Even as more and more people are realizing the importance of open discussion of mental illness, many root causes remain mysterious. Though a correlation between schizophrenia and 22Q11 has been observed, the causation mechanism is far from clear. If Maria’s project can provide an improved method for obtaining Pants, this would greatly facilitate future research. In turn, a better understanding of why schizophrenia develops would likely make a huge difference to how we talk about and treat the mental illness in our society.
Maria first became involved with studying 22Q11 Syndrome in the summer after her sophomore year, when she began working in the lab of Dr. Laurie Earls, Assistant Professor in the Cell and Molecular Biology Department. Maria has worked in Dr. Earls’ lab ever since, with the help of grants from both the Cell and Molecular Biology department and the Center for Engaged Learning and Teaching (CELT). This money has paid for her stipend, as well as for research materials.
Towards the end of her junior year, Maria decided she wanted to turn her lab work into her Honors Thesis project. Through background reading on 22Q11, schizophrenia and micro peptides, she established her framework, and is making progress on isolating Pants. She continues to work under the guidance of Dr. Earls, who is now the first reader on her Thesis Committee, alongside second reader Dr. Robert Dotson, Senior Professor of Practice in the Cell and Molecular Biology Department.
Maria is approaching her Honors Thesis as a culminating intellectual experience in her senior year at Tulane. She intends to follow the conventional medical school track, and she relishes the opportunity to apply the research knowledge she has developed during her undergraduate career. In some way, this project is her way of saying goodbye to research, at least for now.
When asked what advice she would give to aspiring thesis writers, especially those in the sciences, Maria has one main response: get involved early. She says that starting to work in a lab early in a college career means that a student can build a connection with a professor, learn necessary techniques, and make sure one is well placed to be sponsored by a lab for a thesis project. Apart from anything else, involvement in a lab will make it clear whether research is something you want to continue. So, Maria says, you should find professors, look into their research, and reach out to them. You never know where it will lead.
For guidance on exploring research and scholarly opportunities and preparing to write the Honors Thesis prospectus, the Honors Program offers two courses in the Spring focused on these areas. See COLQ 2010: Research Workshop for sophomores and COLQ 4013: Honors Thesis Bootcamp Course for juniors on the Spring 2018 course listing.