A Future in Cells?
For Jillian Gobrecht ’15, studying biology at Washington College has less to do with the destination than the journey of learning itself. Unlike some biology students who come in with a set idea about the major—those who are planning to enter the premed program, for instance—Gobrecht has been letting her education guide her.
“I want to do research for a couple of years and then maybe go to nursing school,” she says. “We’ll see.”
This summer, Gobrecht joined 25 other Washington College students as a John Toll Fellow in the Natural Sciences Division’s Summer Research Program. The program, which funds students with a stipend and housing, helps them gain critical hands-on, graduate-level research experience that often leads to national publication, as well as internships and a leg up into grad school. Working under the capable wing of Mindy Reynolds, associate professor of biology, Gobrecht has been conducting tests on cells exposed to the heavy metal cadmium.
“I’m doing what’s called a comet assay. You expose the cells to cadmium and you run them through electrophoresis and you are looking at what’s called a tail moment. We fluoresce the cells and you can actually see, it looks like a comet. It’s really cool. It’s showing us the amount of damage the cell has gone through, and the tail moment is the DNA separating from the rest of the cell.”
A carcinogen that’s found in cigarettes, fertilizer, batteries, and other items humans regularly use, cadmium bioaccumulates, meaning once inside the body, it never leaves. The damage to cells is one of Reynolds’ ongoing research projects; students who work with her learn lab techniques including cell culture, protein analysis, Western blot analysis, fluorescence microscopy, and gel electrophoresis.
Gobrecht says she’s learned some of this in class, but summer research has given her a chance to immerse in the lab and practice the techniques over and over. “You get really good at them,” she says, “and you know what you’re doing.” What she’s also learning is that she loves the work.
“Cells are so cool, they can do so much. The specificity involved with a cell is just amazing,” Gobrecht says. “So I love working in the lab and working with cells.”
In all her spare time, Gobrecht is also an RA (resident assistant), as well as the philanthropy chair of Alpha Omicron Pi. She says the close-knit nature of Washington College’s community, as well as the accessibility of its faculty, have made all the difference. “I think about other people who didn’t have that experience, and I can’t imagine college now without that. I wouldn’t go anywhere else.”