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Undergraduate Research Leads to Lead Authorship in Biology Publication

By Gina Myers

Shivani Patel and Ryan Petrie stand in front of a research poster

April 14, 2021

Undergraduate researchers rarely see their name appear as the lead author on a publication. Shivani Patel ’20 is an exception. Patel is the lead author on a paper featuring work done in the Petrie Lab that was recently published in Molecular Biology of the Cell (MBoC).

The paper, “Myosin II and Arp2/3 cross-talk governs intracellular hydraulic pressure and lamellipodia formation,” looks at why lamellipodia, a cellular protrusion which directs cell motility, goes away when there is an increase in hydraulic pressure in a cell. The prevailing thought was that the pressure destroyed the lamellipodia, but the paper found that instead there are signaling pathways in the cell that instruct the lamellipodia to go away.

This foundational research has great implications. Ryan Petrie, PhD, assistant professor of biology, explains, “By examining how normal cells switch the types of protrusions they use to migrate, we can then compare it to how it works in cancer cells. Are the cancer cells switching normally or are they broken in some way? Are the mutations that increase cancer cell proliferation also affecting how the cells migrate? By answering these questions we’ll better understand how cancer cells migrate.”

“Additionally, by uncovering the molecules and proteins that are controlling this switch, which is what the paper really does by defining the signaling pathways that control it, it gives us more targets for future drugs,” he says. “We don’t yet know that the cancer cells are different, but if they are, we’ll be able to specifically target the cancer cells and leave our normal cells alone, which would ultimately decrease side effects of chemotherapy.”

Undergraduate research was central to this paper’s findings, and Petrie notes that undergraduates regularly make meaningful contributions to his lab’s work. “Every undergraduate who joins my lab, whether as a volunteer or a Students Tackling Advanced Research (STAR) Scholar, is given a small project that they alone are responsible for. We train each student in the required experimental techniques and then they are unleashed to investigate the mechanisms governing cell motility,” he explains.

“One of the reasons Shivani was so successful was the amount of time she was able to volunteer in the lab over the course of her Drexel career. She joined us as a STAR scholar and then was in the lab each quarter when she wasn’t on co-op diligently moving her project forward. This dedication and some good fortune meant that we were able to complete her project during the shutdown and ultimately publish her work shortly after she graduated,” Petrie says. “Shivani’s secret to success was her intellectual engagement, her dedication to the project, and her expert technique that consistently generated results that moved the project forward.”

Because research progress is often measured in years, Petrie recommends that undergraduates try to find a lab to volunteer in near the end of their first year to have the greatest impact. “The more years the students can spend in the lab, the greater the chance that their work could lead to a peer-reviewed manuscript. In addition, it is rare for a researcher to be successful on their own. That is why having a team of students, such as with Shivani’s project, was an essential factor. Though Shivani was the lead author, without the hard work and dedication of the entire team, we would not have been successful.”

A Passion For Research

Patel, who is now in her first year at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, was delighted to see her research culminate in this publication.

Shivani Patel, Kimheak Sao, and Nicole Naranjo Pictured from top to bottom: Shivani Patel '20, Kimheak Sao '16, and Nicole Naranjo '18

“It was extremely rewarding and exciting to learn that a project that I had become so passionate about and diligently worked on for most of my undergraduate years could finally be shared with the rest of the scientific community,” she says. “I love learning and sharing my knowledge and research with people around me, so it felt very gratifying to have been part of a project where we can share what we have discovered with others and make a significant contribution to the expansion of scientific knowledge.”

Patel knows that being the lead author as an undergraduate is a great accomplishment. “Being the lead author on a research paper is a significant feat and is something that is typically achieved at the graduate level, so I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment that I was able to become first author on a paper as an undergrad,” says Patel. “My motivation and ambition to pursue the project throughout my undergrad stemmed from my curiosities and desires to explore the unknown and understand how the data that I obtained fits with what occurs on a cellular level in our bodies.”

A Team Effort

Two additional authors of the paper, Nicole Naranjo ’18 and Kimheak Sao ’16, also made their contributions as undergraduate researchers.

Sao began working in Petrie’s lab as a senior and then continued on after graduation as a lab technician. Now in her second year at Thomas Jefferson University, she is pursuing a doctorate focusing on the pathology of degenerative intervertebral disc disease in lower back pain.

About the MBoC publication, Sao says, “It was such a rewarding experience to be a part of this project. I learned many essential biochemical assays, microscopy techniques and how to carefully analyze, interpret data and design experiments to address our research questions. I still employ all of these techniques in my current lab at Jefferson.” She adds, “I am so proud of everyone involved, especially my fellow undergraduates who have so passionately contributed to this work.”

Naranjo was surprised when she learned her research was included in the paper. She is now in her third year at Jefferson, pursuing a doctorate in the genetics, genomics and cancer biology program. At the time of her research in the Petrie Lab, she did not see how everything fit together.

“I never thought what I was working on was going to come out in a paper, so I was pleasantly surprised and happy to be included,” she says. “When I read the paper, I finally understood. As an undergraduate, I wasn’t grasping exactly what the goal of my experiments were, but I think that is the beauty of being a PhD—you see how all the pieces fit together. I understand now that my experiment was really setting the base for what students did later.”

A Formative Experience

One of Patel’s biggest takeaways from her research experience was developing her critical thinking skills. “Research heavily involves exploring the unknown where there are no right or wrong answers,” she says. “Having had the fortunate opportunities to design experiments, interpret data, and troubleshoot experimental setbacks, I became better equipped to solve future problems or challenges that I will face in both research and medicine.”

Patel also notes how working in the lab improved her communication, giving her the confidence to translate basic science to the bedside, and her teamwork skills, which is something she relies on every day in medical school.

Like many undergraduate biology students, Naranjo was on the pre-med track until she had the experience of working in Petrie’s lab. As an international student from Ecuador, Naranjo wasn’t really aware of what it meant to be a graduate student, but she learned so much about it and the career possibilities available to researchers from Petrie.

“Being a PhD, you can really do anything. You can go into education, you can run your own lab, or you can work in industry,” she says. “I know it’s hard, but you come out of it so well trained.”

She credits her research experience with building her confidence as a scientist. When she entered the lab, she says she didn’t know anything, but everyone was so helpful and willing to teach her. “Dr. Petrie is very understanding and encouraging. He cares about students doing well and makes sure everyone has their own projects. You get to attend lab meetings and have one-on-one meetings where you discuss your data and what it means, which really prepared me well for graduate school,” Naranjo says.

Sao also cites her undergraduate research experience as directly influencing her decision to attend graduate school. “I really enjoyed my time in Ryan’s lab,” she says. “He was always available for me when I needed his advice, suggestions or constructive feedback. He guided me when necessary, but ultimately trusted me to independently handle my projects and experimental designs. This was key in helping me succeed in graduate studies. Ryan is a phenomenal mentor who is incredibly supporting and encouraging.”

Myosin II and Arp2/3 cross-talk governs intracellular hydraulic pressure and lamellipodia formation” by Shivani Patel, Donna McKeon, Kimheak Sao, Changsong Yang, Nicole M. Naranjo, Tatyana M. Svitkina, and Ryan J. Petrie, was published in Molecular Biology of the Cell on April 1.