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Genetic Link to Obesity Is Focus for Molecular Biology Student


A Q&A with senior Jon Weber, senior molecular biology major and UC's December Undergraduate Research Student of the Month.

Date: 12/21/2010 12:00:00 AM
By: Dama Ewbank
Phone: (513) 558-4519

UC ingot   The University of Cincinnati's Undergraduate Research Council has announced the December recipient of the Undergraduate Research Student of the Month award. Check out the Q&A with senior molecular biology major Jon Weber.

Jon Weber
Senior, Molecular Biology
Under the direction of faculty mentors Paul Pfluger, PhD, College of Medicine, and Stephanie Rollmann, PhD, McMicken College of Arts and Sciences

Jon Weber
Jon Weber

What undergraduate research project are you working on?
Our lab is interested in indentifying genes that play a role in predisposing someone to obesity or showing the potential as useful target genes for pharmacological treatment of obesity. My project involves elucidating the role of a phosphatase, called calcineurin, in sugar and energy homeostasis. We used two model organisms to study this: fruit flies and mice. In both organisms, knocking out the calcineurin gene results in animals that show resistance to developing diet-induced obesity and glucose intolerance—an important factor in the development of diabetes and other metabolic diseases in humans. Our evidence shows that calcineurin-deficient animals have inefficient energy production within mitochondria, thereby creating the need to burn more fat and sugar stores to reach energy homeostasis. We hope that our experiments will translate into new therapeutics for humans with obesity.

Why did you opt to do undergraduate research?
I was curious as to how researchers discover the things I learn about in textbooks. While it was initially difficult to understand what was going on in the lab, I was eventually able to acclimate myself to the protocols I was asked to do. The post-docs and other research assistants were more than willing to answer my questions and educate me about their work. Being involved in research really puts what we learn in class into context. As a result, I no longer look at the study of biology as static and set in stone; rather, it is dynamic and always changing. There are always new theories and arguments emerging within the field, and this makes it an exciting subject to study.

What’s the best lesson you’ve learned?
It is impossible to know where a project will take you. As part of the calcineurin study, I lived in Birmingham, Ala., for three months during the summer of 2009 at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Under my mentor Dr. Maria DeLuca, I performed the fruit fly experiments. Her guidance was very conducive for my development into an autonomous scientist. Through my time spent in Alabama, I became much more independent in my ability to critically evaluate biological problems and carry out experiments.

What advice would you give to other undergraduates thinking about getting involved in research?
Don’t hesitate. It is definitely worthwhile to be involved in research as an undergrad. It allows you the opportunity to communicate directly with faculty and puts you a cut above when applying to graduate school.

What’s next?
Medical school … and then the summit of Everest.

November 2010 Undergraduate Research Student of the Month
October 2010 Undergraduate Research Student of the Month
September 2010 Undergraduate Research Student of the Month
May 2010 Undergraduate Research Student of the Month
April 2010 Undergraduate Research Student of the Month
March 2010 Undergraduate Research Student of the Month