Students working on project: Erika Pino and Lindsey Grissom
Dr. Stilwell’s research focuses on Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a devastating neurodegenerative disease that causes progressive motor neuron degeneration and leads to muscle weakness and death in afflicted individuals. With support through the Rhode Island IDeA Network for Biochemistry Research Excellence (RI-INBRE), Dr. Stilwell’s goal is to understand the causes of ALS, so that findings can inform development of treatments.
“My research is very student-driven,” says Dr. Stilwell. “The students each dedicate about 8 to 10 hours at the lab every week.”
He points out that students’ involvement has been a major contribution to the success they have achieved. “Since my research is very medically focused, it is a good jumping-off point for students to get research experience for their future career trajectories.”
The practice of research skills is a reinforcement of what students learn in the classroom. “For example, they will come back from lectures and say: ‘We learned re-combination in class today.’ And that’s exactly what we do in the lab,” adds Dr. Stilwell.
Erika Pino, who earned her Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in Biology, with a minor in Chemistry, in May 2016, is currently enrolled in the one-year Graduate Certificate Program in Modern Biological Sciences. Erika has been working with Dr. Stilwell, focusing on genomic engineering (molecular biology), since September 2016.
“Working in the lab, first and foremost, has given me the opportunity to establish lifelong friendships with Dr. Stilwell, Dr. Achilli and my lab partners,” says Erika. “I’ve improved my critical thinking skills when experiments go wrong, learned to have patience, and improved my understanding of the primary scientific literature.”
Lindsey Grissom, a senior at RIC, joined Dr. Stilwell’s lab in spring 2017. She has been helping Dr. Stilwell characterize the genetics behind ALS using a Drosophila (fruit fly) model. Lindsey is majoring in Psychology with minors in Biology and Neuroscience, and is planning on pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience after graduation.
“I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity to work in the Stilwell lab. It's really helped me narrow down my career path and has given me great hands-on experience for the future,” says Lindsey. “I also think working in the lab has helped me understand what it means to be collaborative. You have to be able to communicate with other members in order to run an effective lab.”
“The success we have had in the research is very satisfying” says Dr. Toni-Marie Achilli, Assistant Professor of Biology, who has also been working on this project. “But to me, equally as rewarding, is the progress we see from when a student first enters the lab to the growth into an independent researcher.”
According to Dr. Stilwell, this project has benefited from the collaboration between RIC and Brown University.
“Last summer, when Fogarty was under construction, a group of RIC students went to work at Brown University,” recalls Dr. Stillwell. “Students from both RIC and Brown had a lot of fun interacting with each other and achieved their research goals thanks to that collaboration.”
Dr. Stilwell finds great support from the community, especially disease foundations such as the ALS Association. Unlike individual research projects that have a narrow focus, Dr. Stilwell believes the greater community is able to step back and see the larger picture.
“The scientific community has an impact on how we look at disease and what will lead to developing treatments. In turn, scientific research like ours provides insights in every area for the development of the greater community as a whole. At RIC we value high quality research, which gives students real life experience,” says Dr. Stilwell. “For undergraduate students, those are meaningful experiences.”
There are many challenges in funding and infrastructure support in today’s climate, concludes Dr. Stilwell. However, he believes that they can be overcome.
“The success we have achieved really demonstrates the work we do, and it will be a big motivator to secure more resources and upgrade facilities.”
With the new leadership at RIC, Dr. Stilwell sees promising opportunities and support for future research.
L-R: Erica Pino, Dr. Geoffrey Stilwell, Lindsey Grissom