Student Profile: Erin Tucci

ECU undergraduate researcher Erin Tucci is discovering new treatment methods for chronic inflammatory diseases including arthritis and type 2 diabetes.

Major: Nutrition and Dietetics

Mentor: Dr. Michael Wheeler

Department: Department of Nutrition Sciences

Project Title: “miRNA Regulation of TLR4 in Macrophages”

The mechanisms involved in regulating the behavior of macrophages and dictating whether a macrophage transforms into a pro-inflammatory state or a regulatory, anti-inflammatory state is the research topic under investigation. Erin’s research specifically looks at how the expression of TLR4, a major macrophage pathogen receptor, is affected by the presence or absence of different noncoding RNAs within the pro-inflammatory pathway.

How did you get involved in undergraduate research?

I was taking biochemistry with Dr. Michael Wheeler and conveyed an interest in nutrigenomics. After discussing my fascination with the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool and our ability to naturally alter our epigenetics with the food we eat every day, Dr. Wheeler asked if I would be interested in doing research in his lab. I didn’t have a lot of lab experience, but I was eager to learn.

Why did you choose your research topic?

My research mentors discovered that the miRNA processing enzyme, Dicer, plays a direct role in the polarization and function of macrophages. Macrophages produce pro-inflammatory cytokines and interferons when the TLR4 receptor is stimulated. New evidence suggests that TLR4 might be regulated post-translationally through noncoding RNAs, such as small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) and microRNAs (miRNAs). Therefore, the next step is to identify the specific miRNA and siRNA involved in Dicer expression, and the TLR4 pathway, in macrophages. Our hypothesis is that Dicer regulates the basal level TLR4 expression through the processing of Let-7p miRNAs.

What’s been your favorite part of conducting undergraduate research?

I love the challenge of learning new concepts that I had never thought to investigate prior to working in the lab. The research projects that Dr. Wheeler and Dr. Ian Hines are conducting in the nutrition genomics lab are not only furthering the scientific community’s understanding of biological processes, but they are also contributing to the health of humanity. The best aspect of partaking in current scientific and health related discoveries is the fact that I get to be a part of something greater than myself.

What challenges have you faced while conducting undergraduate research?

Equipment malfunctions, small human errors, and old antibodies have been the major challenges that have set back our research progress. I have learned that laboratory research requires a lot of patience as there is a lot of trial and error involved. We could spend weeks setting up an experiment that does not produce any results due to a defective antibody, improper dosages for master mixes, or some minute mess up. Last semester the monitor on the cell culture incubator would always read that the CO2 concentration inside was low. It was recently discovered that the low CO2 levels were attributed to a broken seal, which has been our newest obstacle.

Why is your research important for the general public?

Understanding the pathway of the pro-inflammatory macrophage phenotype will contribute to new treatment opportunities for chronic inflammatory diseases such as atherosclerosis, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. If TLR4 is found to be post-transcriptionally regulated by specific miRNAs, then new drugs or synthetic miRNAs could be developed that target the DICER-Let7p pathway to reduce inflammation and prevent undesirable macrophage associated immune pathology.

What’s your ultimate goal or accomplishment that you hope your research will help you achieve?

The ultimate goal that I hope to achieve from this research experience is a stronger sense of confidence working in a laboratory setting, and research skills that will extend into future personal research during my pursuit of a Ph.D.

Do you have any advice for other students interested in conducting undergraduate research?

My advice for students interested in conducting undergraduate research is to do it! Find a professor that you find inspiring and inquire about current or future research projects. Even if the topic that they are researching is out of your academic comfort zone or doesn’t align perfectly with the type of research you were originally seeking to partake in, I still strongly recommend giving it a shot. You might even discover a new passion for that particular research path and want to continue investigating it further.