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Summer Genetics Research Helps Students Launch Careers


Meaghan Parlee ’21 graduated into a job as a project management specialist at Charles River Laboratories, a position that precisely fits her Hamilton research experience and her overarching interest in the business side of science.

From the summer of 2019 until her graduation, Parlee worked as a research assistant to Assistant Professor of Biology Rhea Datta, a developmental geneticist and molecular biologist. “If I didn’t have this experience, I wouldn’t have gotten this job,” said Parlee, who majored in biology and minored in environmental studies.

Another member of the same research team, Nat Spicer ’21, recently started a job as a research associate at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Spicer, too, says his work with Datta helped him get his job. He majored in biochemistry/molecular biology.

“Both the summer internship and my thesis research helped because I knew I was able to go much more in depth into a specific project, which I think employers liked hearing about, especially [my] leading an independent research project like the thesis,” Spicer said.

They worked with Datta on research that uses fruit flies to study how genes in a genome get turned on and off.

“Every single cell in our body uses the same database, which we call the genome, but every cell in our body is very different; so, your hair cells are different from your skin cells are different from your liver cells,” Datta explains. “The way cells become different is that they express different genes. And some genes and some cells are turned off, and some genes and other cells are turned on.” That’s true for fruit flies, humans, and all multicellular organisms.

Datta looks in particular at gene expression in fruit fly embryos. Her students clone pieces of enhancer DNA, which act as switches to turn genes on or off, and they insert them in a fruit fly genome to observe the on-off process. They then make mutations in the enhancer sequences to understand the exact DNA on-off sequences.

The student researchers on the project — Parlee, Spicer, and Grace Carey ’21 — all are named as authors on papers about the project that Datta has presented at conferences. The College supported their summer work. Each year, Hamilton funds about 75 students to do summer research with faculty. Marjorie Wang ’22 has worked on the Datta project in the past, and this summer Ellie Demaree ’22 and Jungwon Lee ’24 are helping to complete the final experiments.

“Getting in the lab under Professor Datta’s mentorship really shaped how I saw lab research and made me want to go into more of a research-based career going forward after graduation,” says Spicer, whose long-term plan is to go to graduate school in biomedical research.

Carey has joined a research lab at the National Institutes of Health, working on gene regulation in embryonic stem cells. Parlee plans to earn a master’s degree in business administration.

One of the big things Datta wants to foster in her research assistants is the ability to ask a scientific question and then develop the controlled experiments to test hypotheses. That’s a skill they can use everywhere, she says. Datta encourages independence in her researchers, yet is there to support them. It takes students a little time to get comfortable with the process.

“But then there’s a switch at some point where they start to get quite independent and take ownership of the project. That always happens, and that’s always very satisfying,” Datta says.

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