Tarleton undergrad researcher wins award for conference presentation

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STEPHENVILLE — Tarleton State University biological sciences major Shady Kuster received the Bobby Baker Award for her presentation at the 2020 Texas Society of Mammalogists Conference. She competed at the spring conference with other undergraduate students.

The award is given annually for the best undergraduate oral presentation in mammalian molecular biology, evolution or systematics. For several months prior to the conference, Shady used advanced DNA sequencing to study genetic changes in the DNA of cell compartments known as mitochondria.

Her study organisms were pocket gophers. While often considered a pest, the burrowing mammals make interesting study subjects because their populations can become isolated and genetically different over time. Occasionally, those isolated populations rejoin and combine DNA, resulting in unique genetic interactions.

Shady’s research may ultimately contribute to the broader understanding of how genes in different compartments of the cell interact — a research area with human health implications.

Dr. Russell Pfau, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Tarleton, served as Shady’s mentor during her undergraduate research experience.

“I initially joined Dr. Pfau’s lab because I was very interested in genetics,” Shady said. “Through working in the lab, however, I learned how much computer work goes into genetic research, so I am now taking computer science classes and dabbling in that field. I have loved my research experience and what it has taught me. It has solidified my desire to become a scientist.”

Funding for her project was provided by the College of Science and Technology and the Department of Biological Sciences.

Shady, from Canyon, Texas, has been accepted into a summer research program at the University of Georgia that will now be conducted online. She will work with UGA faculty on an algorithm to analyze over 2,000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes to identify virulence genes.

She also will attend seminars on research, graduate school, bioethics and other applicable topics while also networking within the biomedical science community.

Following graduation in May 2021 she plans to work toward a PhD in genetics with the goal of becoming a university-level genetic researcher.


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