Television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation have introduced the public to DNA and its analysis, making it appear quick and easy to do. Lexus Hagedorn is learning what it actually takes to succeed in laboratory research.
Under the guidance of UW-Stevens Point Molecular Biology and Genetics Professor Diane Caporale, the senior from Wausau was one of five students conducting research for PreventionGenetics, Marshfield. This fast-growing genetics testing laboratory has 160 employees and medical customers worldwide.
The students studied DNA changes associated with muscular dystrophy, a disease of progressive muscular weakness, to see if it that is the cause and to ultimately help individualize treatment.
The lab research prepared Hagedorn to work independently and develop time management skills, she said. "The course gave me an image of what I'll have to do in the future, especially if I decide to pursue a Ph.D. in molecular biology. Professor Caporale is quite hands off. She trusts her research teams," said Hagedorn, who graduated in May with a degree in biochemistry.
Caporale and her students have conducted a variety of research for PreventionGenetics in the past three years, such as pedigree analyses on families with a wide variety of genetic disorders. This "Ancestry.com" type of analysis tracks diseases and how a trait may be passed on.
Gregory Fischer and Luke Drury, human molecular geneticists at PreventionGenetics, work closely with the UW-Stevens Point students. Fischer, who researches autism, compared their research to food preparation. "We give them (students) the DNA constructs, or recipe, and they are cooking it to see what happens."
Drury credits the preparation students receive at UW-Stevens Point for the success of what he describes as a "promising and snowballing" relationship with the university. "We have great faith in the UWSP scientific program and how students are being trained," he said. Drury specializes in blood disorders and recruits and hires laboratory technicians in the sequencing department.
This experience gives Caporale's students a competitive advantage when they graduate. "This relationship is extremely valuable to our students, giving them research and lab experience that most undergraduates don't get, making them more marketable," she said. "They also gain a better understanding of the connection between their lab work and how it impacts a patient's life."
During the past 10 years, 16 of her students have been hired by PreventionGenetics after earning their bachelor's degrees. While most were hired as clinical DNA testing laboratory technicians, others have become genetic counselors, working directly with clients, writing reports and managing communications.
Among them is 2018 graduate Hannah Downs, hired as a lab tech. Caporale's molecular biology course piqued her interest in working with DNA. "Dr. Caporale's enthusiasm for teaching made it a fun subject to learn," she said.
The lab portion of her course made for a smooth transition to PreventionGenetics, said Downs, who also earned an associate degree at the university's Marshfield campus in 2016. "It helped take a lot of pressure off the first few weeks of training because I understood what we would be doing and why we were doing it."
"Many of Dr. Caporale's students leave UW-Stevens Point with very strong skills that set them apart from others who may be applying for similar positions in the biotech industry or in clinical or research laboratories," said Michael Chicka, a blood disorder expert at PreventionGenetics and UW-Stevens Point graduate. "Many of the techniques and applications I learned in her course I still apply today. They were pivotal in my development as a human molecular geneticist."
UW-Stevens Point's 176,500-square-foot Chemistry Biology Building, which opened last fall, enhances research opportunities, said Caporale. "Students now have easy access to all of the needed equipment and other resources, including the expertise of other professors." The building has more than $300,000 of state-of-the-art molecular and cellular equipment.
PreventionGenetics and UW-Stevens Point have a strong relationship. "It's a great collaboration," Caporale said, noting that Drury contributes to curriculum planning at UW-Stevens Point.
"We've been spoiled with the knowledge and talent level of UW-Stevens Point graduates," added Drury, who fondly referred to the 35-mile drive from the Stevens Point campus to the company's headquarters as "the golden road from UWSP."