A Virginia Tech biochemistry and biological sciences undergraduate student, Esther Wisdom, was recently awarded a research grant from Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Honor Society's Grants-in-Aid of Research program.

Only 12 percent of the grant applications were approved for funding, and only 17 of the approved proposals were from undergraduate students, so this is a major accomplishment for Wisdom.

Wisdom will receive a $1,000 grant from the program’s cell biology/biochemistry category for a project entitled, “Circadian regulation of the p53 response in cancer therapeutics.”

“I was surprised and thankful when I found out I had received the grant. It was my first time writing a grant application, and I thought I probably wouldn’t be selected,” said Wisdom.

Wisdom, from Falls Church, Virginia, is a junior in the Honors College at Virginia Tech. She has conducted research in Carla Finkielstein’s lab at the Biocomplexity Institute for the past year.

Finkielstein, an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science, researches the molecular basis by which environmental factors influence sporadic breast cancer incidence with a focus on circadian disruption as a toxic agent. She also seeks to understand the mechanisms by which tumors develop resistance to conventional therapies and interfere with the resistance process using nano-based technologies.

“It was a well-deserved award. Esther is tremendously inquisitive, always very well-informed, and displays remarkable perseverance,” said Finkielstein, a Biocomplexity Fellow and affiliated faculty of the Fralin Life Science Institute. “Her approach to science is extremely mature. She comes to the lab and puts the time and effort in that is needed to make a project successful.”

Wisdom’s research focuses on the interactions between p53, a tumor suppressor, and PER2, a circadian protein. Circadian rhythms follow daily cycles and are governed by external cues, such as light and temperature changes. They regulate physiological and behavioral changes.

This interaction of p53 and PER2 is of particular interest to Finkielstein’s lab as mutations in the p53 gene occur with the highest frequency in sporadic breast cancer cases, a form of breast cancer that is not inherited and accounts for 90 percent of all cases reported.

“Interestingly, a proportion of p53-mutated breast cancer arise in women exposed to chronic circadian disruption, such as nurses working night-shifts. Consequently, my work focuses on understanding the interplay between mutated p53 and PER2 and how their interaction can be exploited therapeutically,” said Wisdom, a double-major in the Department of Biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and microbiology in in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science.

p53 is a tumor-suppressing protein that acts like a brake to stop cell division. In cancer, the brakes are broken, causing cell division to always be on with no way to stop it. This results in uncontrolled cell proliferation. Wisdom’s research examines whether, based on the type of cancer, the tumor suppressor should be reconstituted, i.e., like fixing the brake, or if treatment should trigger cell death.

“The Department of Biochemistry is very proud of the work Esther is doing in Dr. Finkelstein’s lab. Many of our biochemistry students do significant undergraduate research while at Virginia Tech, but few are awarded grants for their research,” said Glenda Gillaspy, professor and biochemistry department head.

Finkielstein’s lab received the Mitzi L. Frank Memorial Scholarship in 2018. The endowment is in honor of Mitzi Frank, a Virginia Tech alumna who lost her battle with breast cancer in 2017. Ponch Frank, Mitzi’s husband, honored his wife with a donation to fund students like Wisdom in Finkielstein’s lab.

Wisdom also received the Jerry & Leslie Gough Fellowship in 2018 through the Honors College. The Gough Fellowship gave Esther funding for her summer research experience in Finkielstein’s lab.

In just one year in the lab, Wisdom already has many responsibilities. Before leaving for her study abroad trip in Ecuador this semester, Wisdom prepared for her departure by wrapping up her research, organizing data, and contributing to publications. Wisdom, who is only a junior, has already contributed to two papers in Finkielstein’s lab. During the summer, the team needed an extra pair of hands to finish a paper that was published in the journal Science Signaling. Wisdom stepped in and helped contribute to the paper.

“One benefit of doing research as an undergrad is becoming immersed in a really cool lab community,” Wisdom said. “Working together in the lab is quite a bonding experience. It has helped me form friendships and mentor relationships with other undergrads, graduate students, and Dr. Finkielstein. My favorite part of working in Dr. Finkielstein’s lab is getting to work on problems that challenge me academically, creatively, and practically in a really supportive environment.”

Robert Cohen, professor and head of the Department of Biological Sciences, said, “There is no better way to learn science than to do science. Undergraduate research is not only a great way to learn, but also a great way to identify your own area of interest, sharpen your communication skills, and bolster your resume.” 

Outside of the lab, Wisdom demonstrates Virginia Tech’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). When new students join Finkielstein’s lab, Wisdom is the first to help orient them to Virginia Tech and is supportive whenever they need help. Additionally, she takes a day off each summer to canoe down the New River cleaning up litter with a group of students in an event called Renew the New.

After graduating in 2020, Wisdom hopes to pursue her Ph.D. and continue doing research as part of her career.

The Sigma Xi Grants-in-Aid of Research program has been funding research by undergraduate and graduate students since 1922. Ninety-seven students who applied by the Oct. 1, 2018, deadline learned in January that their proposals were accepted. Collectively, the students received $87,696.

The Committee on Grants-in-Aid of Research, chaired by Peter J. Harries of North Carolina State University, selected 17 undergraduate students, 24 master’s students, and 56 doctoral candidates to receive grants. The awardees are from six countries.

Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society is the world’s largest multidisciplinary honor society for scientists and engineers. Its mission is to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition. 

Sigma Xi chapters can be found at colleges and universities, government laboratories, and industry research centers around the world. More than 200 Nobel Prize winners have been members. The society is based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Students may apply for funding from the program twice each year at sigmaxi.org/programs/grants-in-aid. The next application deadline is March 15. The grants are made possible by designated funds from the National Academy of Sciences and from donations.

Written by Rasha Aridi and Kristin Rose