Determined to Learn in the Lab
National Merit Scholar uses research to expand his knowledge of biology
After his first year at the University of Idaho in 2015, Elijah Benson decided he wanted to spend his summer working in a lab rather than heading home to Boise.
“I wanted to get involved so I could eventually get a great fellowship and start doing my own research,” says Benson, 19, a biology major, Honors Program student and one of UI’s 78 National Merit Scholars.
He scoured the list of biological sciences professors on the UI College of Science website, examining their areas of expertise and reading their research papers. When he found a few whose work he found particularly intriguing, he started sending emails.
He landed a job cleaning and organizing equipment in associate biological sciences professor Tanya Miura’s lab. He observed and interacted with his colleagues as he worked, learning the basics of laboratory research.
Less than a year later, Benson has already achieved his goal of earning a fellowship: For the next three semesters, he’ll be conducting his own project in Miura’s lab with support from the Hill Undergraduate Research Fellowship. The Hill program offers scholarship and research grant money for students working on projects with College of Science faculty.
“Through his Hill Fellowship, Elijah will take a project from the starting idea, selling the idea, designing, troubleshooting, and completing experiments, analyzing results and reporting his findings,” says Miura, who praised Benson for his energy and curiosity. “This will be an amazing learning experience for him, which will hopefully result in a publication that he will co-author.”
Miura and her students study what happens when an organism’s respiratory tract is infected by two or more viruses at once, known as viral co-infection. Her research aims to answer broad questions about how such a co-infection can increase or decrease an infection’s severity.
“She’s looking at it from a topical level, but she’s also going very deep,” Benson says. “She will get an exceptional understanding out of it.”
Benson’s part of the project is investigating a protein called tetherin, so named because it tethers certain viruses as they’re budding, or exiting an infected cell while deriving an outer envelope for themselves from the cell’s membrane.
Tetherin allows cells to ingest the budding viruses and break them down, or gives immune cells time to respond and “eat” the invaders. It’s one of the more effective defenses a cell has against viruses, Benson says.
Benson will focus on optimizing a method for silencing tetherin in cells, which will help him uncover more precisely how the protein operates by comparing the amount of virus released by cells with active tetherin compared to cells with silenced tetherin.
Benson also will test the effects of tetherin on viruses that don’t derive envelopes from the cell membrane. If tetherin still reduces the amount of virus produced in these cases, it may have more than just a mechanical function in fighting infection – preliminary research indicates it could be a smaller part of a signaling pathway that helps cells fight viruses in other ways.
Benson hopes to continue this line of research throughout his college career.
“Long term, I’d like to determine how tetherin effects the interaction of two different viruses,” he says. “Tetherin is proven to be one of the more effective viral antagonists expressed by cells, so it’s definitely one we’re interested in learning more about.”
Lab work has given him Benson chance to bring real-world meaning to his coursework – though he notes that his classes, too, have given him opportunities to explore the many sides of biology. This semester, for example, he’s taking a class that ties evolutionary biology and video game design.
“One reason I really like the biology classes here is I get exposed to a lot of different fields and a lot of different ideas,” he says. “I like how there’s so much breadth and depth in one field. Everything is interconnected on a fundamental level, but so varied.”
Article by Tara Roberts, University Communications & Marketing