Assistant Professor of Chemistry
Physical Sciences Department
Dr. Jamie Towle-Weicksel, Assistant Professor of Chemistry in the Physical Sciences department, is currently working on a research project called DNA Polymerase Theta and its Potential Role in Cancer, funded through Rhode Island IDeA Network for Biochemistry Research Excellence (RI-INBRE). Working closely with two undergraduate students, Ashley Rebelo and Lisbeth Avalos, Dr. Towle-Weicksel is examining how an emerging player in cancer biology, DNA polymerase theta (Pol theta or POLQ) functions within the context of DNA repair and cancer.
After graduating from Clark University with a Ph.D. in Biochemistry, Dr. Towle-Weicksel continued her post-doctoral research at Yale University, where she developed a fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) system to watch the movements of a well-known DNA polymerase, Pol beta as it incorporates a new DNA base in real time. Dr. Towle-Weicksel’s work demonstrated how movements of Pol beta might influence its ability to repair DNA. She then brought her research skills, along with a passion to teach at a small undergraduate institution, to Rhode Island College (RIC).
At RIC, Dr. Towle-Weicksel and her two undergraduate students are observing and working to understand the biochemical mechanisms of patient-derived melanoma variants of Pol theta, and how these mutants may disrupt the overall function of the polymerase during DNA repair. Her research group also aims to understand how movements of Pol theta might influence DNA repair. The larger goal is to give undergraduate students an intensive research experience that applies basic biochemical principles to a fundamental topic such as cancer.
The students are great motivation and inspiration for Dr. Towle-Weicksel. “They often think of things I haven’t thought of,” says Dr. Towle-Weicksel. “When they come in with fresh eyes, they have a different perspective and we teach each other. For instance, Ashley has been really dedicated to finding new methods in the literature and bringing more techniques into our toolbox.”
Ashley is a junior at RIC majoring in Chemistry (concentration in Biochemistry). She has been working with Dr. Towle-Weicksel on this project since January 2016.
“I started learning a lot working here every day in the summer. I really enjoyed the experience. I feel a lot more independent and prepared now,” she said. Ashley is preparing to apply for a Rockefeller summer undergraduate research fellowship (SURF) and is planning on entering a Ph.D. program in biochemistry after graduation.“The skills we get from working on this project are transferable. You can bring them with you to your future career not only in science, but also to a field such as medicine.” says Lisbeth Avalos. Lisbeth is a senior at RIC, majoring in Chemistry with a Biochemistry concentration. She is going to apply to Post-baccalaureate programs after graduation before applying to Graduate School.
Dr. Towle-Weicksel said they recently found that one of their cancer-associated variants was behaving differently than normal Pol theta. “It might be a ground-breaking finding, and that’s all done by the students.” she said.
According to Dr. Towle-Weicksel and her students, it is important to let people know that we are doing cutting-edge research at RIC. “Our students are welcome and encouraged to join research in experimental labs.”
With the funding from RI-INBRE, students are able to use equipment like the Stopped-flow used in Dr. Towle-Weicksel’s FRET experiments, and the KinTek rapid chemical quench-flow, used to characterize the very fast biochemical activities of Pol theta to experience research beyond the classroom. By finding answers to basic scientific questions and understanding the mechanism of cancer, the project seeks to impact the greater community.
“We provide a space for students to learn research skills, which they can bring with them to the job market and future work places,” added Dr. Towle-Weicksel.
Dr. Towle-Weicksel and her lab has recently received an early career grant – Medical Research Fund from the Rhode Island Foundation -- that supports young researchers. “I am very excited about this grant since it supports our ideas by providing materials and supplies for our research. It will also allow greater numbers of students to participate in a laboratory research experience”
Dr. Towle-Weicksel is the first RIC recipient of a Medical Research Fund grant award from the Rhode Island Foundation. “This will help us achieve our goal of publishing our biochemical findings of our melanoma-derived variants and eventually our basic research could be applied in a clinical setting.”
L-R: Ashley Rebelo, Dr. Jamie Towle-Weicksel, Lisbeth Avalos