The strongest teams often have the perfect mix of dedication, determination, and a powerful work ethic, and that’s exactly what emerged from a student-led undergraduate research project at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.
 
The research team, anchored by Landon Mance, an athlete bound for Edward Via College of Medicine in the fall, faculty mentor Professor Bruce Cahoon, and sparked by eager soon-to-be UVA student Ishaat Mawla, found an unexpected molecule in a project involving human mitochondrial gene expression. The project, which was published in Mitochondrion, the Official Journal of the Mitochondria Society, could have a role in future research on mitochondrial gene expression and how it relates to diseases in certain human organs.
 
“We don’t know what it is doing yet,” Cahoon, the Buchanan Endowed Chair of Biology said.
 
“It could play a significant role,” Mance added.
 
“We need to figure out what its purpose is,” Mawla said.
 
According to Cahoon, the team defined and catalogued an undiscovered version of RNA (circular RNA) used in mitochondrial gene expression. Mitochondria are known as the powerhouses of the cell and their incorrect functioning are the root of a number of human diseases and disorders. Mitochondria carry their own set of genes and they must be expressed for every cell to function properly.
 
“We don’t know the role these circular RNAs play in the gene expression, but all of them were incorrect versions of the genes because they were too short,” Cahoon said. “We suspect they may be incorrect RNAs that have been sequestered so they do not adversely affect proper gene expression.”
 
While the research is getting attention following its publication, Cahoon admits he has stepped a bit from his comfort zone. He is accustomed to working with plants, but the research on human cells has been intriguing. He also has enjoyed watching Mance and Mawla work together on the research.
 
“These two,” he said as he nodded toward his students. “What they did was help get a system working.”
 
The techniques the students honed are also working in other student-driven research projects, Cahoon noted.
 
It all started more than a year ago when Mance asked if he could work on a human cell research project. Cahoon saw no reason to discourage the football player, recently named a Rocovich Scholar, so Mance got to work.
 
When the fall semester started, Cahoon liked what he was seeing in the classroom and lab from Mawla, a freshman who decided to do his first year at UVA Wise as part of the deferred program with the University of Virginia. Cahoon asked Mance if Mawla could join the project, and the team got a strong boost.
 
“Landon was gracious,” Cahoon said. “I was pleased to see the two of them working together.”
 
Mance saw an opportunity to harness the eagerness Mawla brought to the lab. It gave the senior from Richlands, Virginia a chance to do some mentoring.
 
“We would sit down and Ishaat would ask me to explain some things, and it seemed to work well,” Mance said.
 
“It was overwhelming at times, but I can’t say it wasn’t fun,” Mawla, the freshman from Loudon County, Virginia said. “It was a fun process.”
 
Mawla, one of about two dozen Virginia students who selected UVA Wise under the seamless deferred admission program, was surprised to find himself immersed in such an important research project just weeks after he graduated high school.
 
“It’s a new world of science that I haven’t been exposed to before,” Mawla said. “It has truly been one of my favorite things so far.”
 
He wants to go to medical school, but now he hopes to also pursue a doctorate degree so he can practice medicine and do research. His family is impressed by what he is learning at UVA Wise, and they have been supportive of his research.
 
Both Mance and Mawla believe their undergraduate research will enhance their success as they move on to other academic pursuits. Writing a published paper will be a resume booster for both.
 
Mance said adapting to scientific writing was difficult at first, but it gave him greater insight into the process.
 
Mawla said it was tough not being able to just “hit the back button” if he diluted a solution too much from time to time.
 
“It took some getting used to,” he said.
 
The students will present oral and poster presentations on their undergraduate research at the Association of Southeastern Biologists in April in Jacksonville, Florida.
 
“My family is grateful that I’ve been given this opportunity,” Mawla said.
 
With a huge grin, Cahoon said he expects the student members of the research team will one day meet each other again at a future medical conference.
 
Funding for the undergraduate research project was provided by the Buchanan Chair of Biology Endowment at UVA Wise.