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Weihong Qiu pointing at samples with female mentee, Haelyn Epp, in lab

Focusing on research full-time helps BioHealth Science student get to the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’

By Kimberly Felton

Physics professor Weihong Qiu with BioHealth Sciences major Haelyn Epp

Haelyn Epp stepped foot into Weihong Qiu’s lab for her first day of work that summer, a room familiar to her through her first two years at Oregon State University. She knew which cabinets held what supplies; where, how, and when to clean equipment; where to hang her lab coat when the day was done.

But this day was different. Today began a summer of not just implementing instructions, but beginning to understand the “why” behind them. Rather than five to seven hours of lab time each week, she now had 11 weeks of paid full-time work through the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Science Award.

Epp, now in her third year, is a three-job kind of student, putting herself through school with jobs as diverse as working in the student dining hall, transcribing audio files, and a summer job at a clothing store. She doesn’t begrudge any of it. “I’ve been really fortunate to have a good experience,” she says.

As a BioHealth sciences major, she was glad to pick up part-time work in Weihong Qiu’s Lab in February of her first year, paid by the OSU STEM Leaders program. She continued that work for three terms, yet researching fulltime in a lab last summer was a new experience altogether.

“You can do research in public health, or statistics. I know I do the stereotypical white coat, but some students go take samples in lakes. Another friend did research on how to teach kids whose second language is English.”

“During the summer, I learned a lot of the theory behind the procedures I was doing,” Epp says. “My professor wanted me to understand why we did step one.

“The highlight of my summer was having a better understanding of why I was doing the steps, and how that led to my end goal. I also had two separate jobs during the summer, but this was my main focus, so I was able to understand a lot of it very quickly.”

Qiu’s lab, in the Department of Physics, works with motor proteins. “There are different types of families within motor proteins; we work with just one,” Epp says. “The motor proteins have a few different functions within a cell. They are crucial for cell division.”

Qiu’s lab works with kinesin-5 and kinesin-14, studying how each of these specific two motor proteins work. These proteins work similar to a train engine, pulling “cargo” from one part of the cell to another, moving on self-assembling tracks called microtubules.

“If that system breaks down,” Epp says, “then the cells would not be able to replicate and divide. Depending on what cells are affected, the body would stop functioning altogether. So nothing would work, basically; it would all just go to shambles.”

Epp’s job over the summer was to break that system. “The way my professors described it to me, we’re researching for understanding,” she says. “We think this specific structure allows it to do a, b, and c. Then we create a protein construct that has had an alteration made to its structure, to see if it is true.

“The central stalk [of the motor protein] holds a lot of tension, which produces strain. I inserted a flexible polypeptide linker that would reduce the tension. We were able to see that the motor function did not work as well — but we don’t exactly know why. We just know it is important.”

While other labs and institutions study motor proteins for purposes such as cancer prevention, the Qiu lab focuses on the mechanics of motor proteins. “If we understand more, maybe that knowledge can be applied to other fields, like medicine,” Epp says.

Now in her third year at Oregon State University, Epp is considering whether she will continue her work in the Qiu lab, or branch into other areas of science. With a minor in public health, Epp has had an ongoing interest in preventative medicine. “I’ve always thought that was the key missing in our medical system,” she says. “I want to learn different approaches in public health.”

So Epp volunteers for the Wellness Agent Program, through Student Health Services at OSU. Creating public health campaigns for students provides direct application for what she learns through her classes.

Epp also works as an undergraduate research ambassador for the office of URSA, and as a peer mentor for the STEM Leaders Program, helping students get started on research. This past summer, she began as program assistant for the STEM leaders program, helping with branding the outreach programs. On or off the payroll, she urges students to consider research programs.

“Coming into college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” Epp says. “I knew I was interested in research, which I knew was science-heavy. I thought all research was white lab coats. But there are a lot of opportunities, a lot of ways to get involved. I did research through URSA Engage Award – a 15-week paid research award — on Tibetan Buddhism, because a friend was Buddhist and I wanted to know more.

“Just look and get into undergraduate research,” she urges her peers. “It is a really crucial experience that all students should try to have, just to help them be more well-rounded — and faculty and donors should try to support it. You can do research in public health, or statistics. I know I do the stereotypical white coat, but some students go take samples in lakes. Another friend did research on how to teach kids whose second language is English. It’s really whatever you’re interested in.”

Epp has always enjoyed science, especially the labs. “You take this concept you can’t really see and apply it to life,” she says. For Epp, the SURE Science Award did more than let her focus on motor proteins. “It replaced one of my jobs, [and] allowed me to focus on research in a way I had not been able to.”