Meet Eilene Deng, a 2021 Goldwater Scholar.
A resident of State College, Pennsylvania, Eilene is currently a Junior majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and minoring in music performance. Having come to Penn State looking for opportunities to engage in undergraduate research, she found them through the Schreyer Honors College and Millennium Scholars Program.
Currently, Eilene conducts her research in the Gilmour Laboratory where she is mentored by Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology, David Gilmour, and works closely with Roberta Dollinger, a graduate student in the BMMB Program. The Gilmour laboratory studies gene regulation, which is essential to virtually every cellular process, from how cells develop to how they respond to stimuli. Upon graduating from Penn State, she plans to work as part of a post-baccalaureate program, or as a research assistant, then earn her MD/PhD Her ultimate goal is to one day work as a physician-scientist in an academic setting.
Let’s learn a little more about Eilene, where her love of science stemmed from, the research she conducts, and more.
What led you to want to pursue an education in biochemistry and molecular biology, and a subsequent career in science?
In high school, I became interested in science when I started to learn how much is still unknown. When I was learning about fundamental concepts in my biology and chemistry classes, I began to wonder how we obtained this knowledge. For example, how did researchers discover and come to understand each step in mitosis? My curiosity developed even more when I would go to the doctor’s office and found that I was unsatisfied with the explanation they gave me for some of my illnesses.
These experiences led me to pursue an education in biochemistry and molecular biology, because this degree would give me the tools to not only understand biological processes in the body, both at the molecular and cellular level, but also the ability to ask my own scientific questions and eventually answer them. In the future, I plan to obtain an MD/PhD to improve our understanding of disease etiologies while also treating patients and applying what I learn in the lab to patient care.
What research do you conduct as an undergraduate researcher?
I conduct research in the lab of Dr. David Gilmour. The Gilmour lab studies gene regulation, which is essential to virtually every cellular process, from how cells develop to how they respond to stimuli. This regulation occurs at the transcriptional (DNA to RNA), translational (RNA to protein), and post-translational levels (modifications on a protein). It is critical for cells to control properly gene expression level and timing, as dysregulation can lead to a wide variety of diseases including cancer, autoimmune disorders, and diabetes.
Our lab studies regulation at the transcriptional level. Specifically, we study a phenomenon called promoter-proximal pausing (or pausing), which is the process by which RNA Polymerase II, the enzyme responsible for transcribing protein-coding genes, stalls after transcribing 30-50 nucleotides. Pausing occurs on nearly all protein-coding genes in higher eukaryotes (like humans and the fruit fly) and it is a critical regulatory step because the duration of the pause controls the level of gene expression.
My work in the lab has focused on studying a protein, called DSIF, involved in promoter-proximal pausing. Although we know DSIF contributes to pausing, less is known about the specific roles each region of the protein. For my project, I am mutating several regions of DSIF and testing the effect these mutations on binding to NELF, another protein important in pausing. If a mutated region impairs binding, that tells us that region is important in interacting with NELF. This structural study will provide mechanistic insight into the regulation of promoter-proximal pausing.