WSU seniors Raven Conyers and Luis Cortez and sophomore Keesha Matz received awards for outstanding presentations at the recent Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) in Seattle.

WSU sophomore Keesha Matz, and seniors Luis Cortez and Raven Conyers, with WSU Assistant Vice Provost Mary Sánchez Lanier
WSU sophomore Keesha Matz, and seniors Luis Cortez and Raven Conyers, with WSU Assistant Vice Provost Mary Sánchez Lanier

All three were able to attend ABRCMS thanks to financial support from the Scott and Linda Carson Undergraduate Research Endowed Excellence Fund. Established in 2013, the endowment is administered by the Office of Undergraduate Research, part of WSU Undergraduate Education. The Carsons have supported student activities at WSU for many years. Last fall, they were publicly honored by the WSU Foundation as Platinum Laureates for their exceptional investments in scholarships and student services. Scott (’72) serves on WSU’s Board of Regents.

ABRCMS is the largest professional conference for underrepresented minority students, military veterans, and persons with disabilities. It is supported by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Nearly 1,900 students were chosen to present research in 14 scientific disciplines, attend workshops, and meet representatives from universities and businesses.

Grateful for the opportunity

The award winners were unanimous in expressing gratitude for the Carson funds, and reported that the benefits gleaned at ABRCMS went far beyond awards and special acknowledgements at a closing dinner.

“Going to ABRCMS was the best experience of my life and it opened tons of doors to me,” said Conyers.

“The workshops and seminars were exceptional, as was meeting people,” Matz said. “ABRCMS gave me the confidence to apply for summer research experiences at other universities.”

“It was uplifting to me that people at ABRCMS were really interested in my work and my presentation, as much as I enjoyed presentations by other people,” said Cortez, who had presented his work at three professional meetings prior to ABRCMS.

WSU well represented

From WSU, a total of six undergraduates, two graduate students, and one summer research participant delivered poster or oral presentations at ABRCMS. Only undergraduates are eligible for awards.

WSU Assistant Vice Provost Mary Sánchez Lanier teaches virology courses and serves frequently as an ABRCMS judge.

“We had great students representing WSU at ABRCMS, and we applaud our award winners and every presenter from our university,” she said. “The caliber of work they are doing with their research faculty mentors gave WSU a real presence at this national venue. We are very grateful for the support of the Carson family that made the students’ experiences possible.”

Awardees’ research topics

Conyers received a top prize in the biochemistry category for her poster describing her research into “The Effect of FUdR on Fatty Acid Composition and Aging in Caenorhabditis elegans.”

The 23-year old from Lynnwood, Washington, is majoring in genetics and cell biology, and will attend WSU’s College of Pharmacy next year. Her mentor is Jennifer Watts, associate professor in WSU’s School of Molecular Biosciences (SMB).

Cortez was a top awardee in the developmental biology and genetics category. His poster describes his investigation into “APOBEC Catalyzed Mutagenesis in DNA Replication Intermediates.” He is a 26-year-old from Othello, Washington, double majoring in biochemistry plus genetics and cell biology. His mentor is Steven A. Roberts, assistant professor in SMB.

Matz was the best among eight researchers specially chosen to make oral presentations in the microbiology category. Her topic is “Roles of Nipah Virus Attachment, Fusion, and Matrix Proteins on Viral Assembly and Budding.” A member of WSU’s Honors College, 19-year old Matz is from Chehalis, Washington, and is majoring in microbiology. Her mentor is Hector Aguilar-Carreno, assistant professor in WSU’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health.

Conyers’ goal to help others heal

Conyers plans to become a nuclear pharmacist specializing in molecular pharmacology in a research setting, using her “skills to help others recover from illness.”

She was inspired by a hospital pharmacist when she was 16 years old and bed-bound for weeks with Guillain–Barré syndrome. Her recovery from the rare disorder required her to learn to walk and write again. But taking science and math courses at Everett Community College to catch up to high-school classmates gave her focus.

She chose to continue her education at WSU in 2013 “because of all it stands for—a feeling of community, its school spirit, and opportunities for undergraduate research—one of my friends told me about that.”

At the close of Conyers’ first year at WSU, she joined Watts’ lab. At ABRCMS, she described her research efforts involving the nonparasitic worm C. elegans, a popular model organism in labs because it is “easy to grow at room temperature, lives two-to-three weeks, and has similar genes to humans.” To inhibit its reproduction, many labs use the cancer drug FUdR on the worms. Conyers sought to find whether the drug alters the metabolism of C. elegans and whether this powerful drug should be used in aging experiments. She found that FUdR alters the fatty acid composition in the worms, which may significantly affect the outcomes of aging studies.

When not in the lab or studying, Conyers plays video games, hikes, and enjoys time with friends and coworkers. For the past 10 months, she has moonlighted (literally) by driving for a Pullman-based taxi service, College Cabs, from 4 p.m. until 4 a.m. on weekends.

“It’s so different from my other activities but it’s fun and a great way to meet interesting people. Some of them think I’m pretty interesting, too.”

Cortez’s interest in medicine

Research wasn’t on the radar when Cortez landed grants and a Future Cougars of Color scholarship to attend WSU, but it will be his life’s work when his plans materialize to become a physician with a Ph.D.

“I want to research human health issues and also transfer my lab discoveries into practice,” he said. “I could say I want to cure cancer, but I’ll be very satisfied if I can find ways to prevent DNA damage and increase human longevity a bit.”

Cortez is a first-generation college student. His parents emigrated to the U.S. from the Florencia municipality in the state of Zacatecas in central Mexico. His father arrived in the 1970s and his mother in the late 1980s. He was 10 years old when his father died; his mother raised Luis in Othello.

“At WSU, I did well in a two-semester, introductory biology course, and then in biochemistry and organic chemistry courses, and I was hooked. I began to think about graduate school and becoming a scientist. And I started to look for a faculty mentor to do research with.

“My advisor mentioned a new professor—Steve Roberts—and I asked if I could do volunteer work for him. I was the first undergraduate in his lab, and did basic experiments for nine hours a week. As I gained experience, he helped me become more independent. Now in my second year in the lab, I’m paid to work on a line of research that I can feel personally responsible for while still working as part of a team of scientists.”

Cortez investigates a family of enzymes (APOBEC) that exist in mammalian cells and damage viruses that have invaded the cell as part of an innate immune response—they have been found to work against HIV. But the enzymes can latch onto any DNA, including the cell’s own DNA and cause mutations that can damage DNA as it’s replicating and potentially lead to cancer; furthermore, as cancer cells replicate at an elevated rate, the enzymes have an opportunity to exacerbate the mutagenesis in cancers. Based on the findings that Cortez presented at ABRCMS, the lab expanded its investigation into the whole genome. He recently published a paper on his work titled, “APOBEC3A and APOBEC3B Preferentially Deaminate the Lagging Strand Template during DNA Replication” in Cell Reports. []

Matz’s path to science research, and the Nipah virus

Having loved math and science since childhood, Matz decided in high school that she would aim for a career as a virology researcher at a government institution such as the National Institutes of Health, or a biotechnology company. She wants to “learn more about nature and discover what no one else knows about.”

At W.F. West High School in Chehalis, she studied molecular genetics and DNA methylation patterns with award-winning teacher and WSU alumnus Henri Weeks. When it was time for college, she was determined to come to WSU.

“I preferred WSU because of its research reputation and also because of its STARS program, so I was very happy to get into both,” Matz said. The Students Targeted toward Advanced Research Studies (STARS) program in the School of Molecular Biology in the College of Veterinary Medicine provides a fast-track from undergraduate to doctoral studies and training for selected students.

Her first research experience at WSU has been in Aguilar-Carreno’s lab in the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health. Matz has worked on two projects looking at the interactions of three proteins that affect how a virus—in this case, the notorious Nipah virus—replicates and exits a host cell, spreading infection.

Nipah virus was first identified in 1999 when 40 percent of 257 persons in Malaysia sickened by it died. It was the model for the killer virus in the 2011 blockbuster film, “Contagion,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow. In the movie the virus that attacked and killed the star jumped to humans from pigs that had eaten food contaminated by guano from host-agent fruit bats. This is very close to what happens in real life. The lethal and little-known virus has no vaccine or cure, and targets the respiratory and nervous systems, especially the brain.

In Aguilar-Carreno’s biosafety level 2 laboratory in the Allen School on the Pullman campus, Matz studies the virus using viral-like particles that are incomplete Nipah microbes. Results from the work of Matz and her teammates in the Aguilar-Carreno lab could lead to treatments for the Nipah virus, perhaps in the form of a vaccine or novel drug.

Biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) is a level of the biocontainment precautions required to isolate dangerous biological agents in an enclosed lab facility. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set four such levels, with BSL-1 having the lowest biosafety level and BSL-4 having the highest.

Research is fun for Matz, who also participates in the molecular biosciences club and WSU’s Honors College. In her free time, she enjoys spending time outdoors bicycle touring, kayaking, hiking, or mountain climbing.