Undergraduate Research and Creativity Alumni Profiles 

Amelia Alessi, B.S. ’09

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Johns Hopkins University
Major(s): Biology, Chemistry, and Secondary Education

What research or work have you done since graduating from Buffalo State?

I attended graduate school at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where my thesis work involved characterizing factors that regulate the microRNA pathway using the model system C. elegans. In my post-doc at Johns Hopkins I continue to explore the biological function of microRNAs and other small RNAs expressed in the genome. I am particularly interested in investigating the post-transcriptional regulatory functions and interplay of RNA-binding proteins with microRNAs during development and in response to adverse conditions. My research investigates how developmental regulation by the microRNA let-7 is affected by RNA-binding proteins and how that changes in response to stress and disease. The ultimate goal is to decipher the complex regulatory networks of small RNAs and RNA-binding proteins, determine how they contribute to overall gene regulation, and investigate how they respond to dynamic environmental conditions.

Can you translate your work for the general public?

I want to explore how humans undergo complex transitions, like development, and respond to stress and disease. My work involves exploring how our DNA is regulated by broadly conserved, tiny RNA molecules that control if our DNA able to express the information, or RNA, it encodes. These tiny RNA molecules, called microRNAs, play essential roles in post-embryonic development, influence learning and memory, and are dysregulated in a variety of diseases—including cancer. Since their discovery in the early 1990s we have learned a lot about what microRNAs are and how they affect DNA expression through RNA regulation. However, we still have much to learn about what regulates these powerful microRNAs themselves! I use C. elegans, a non-parasitic roundworm, to discover and understand factors that promote and antagonize microRNA function. I am particularly interested in how developmental regulation by the microRNA let-7 is affected in response to stress and disease. C. elegans is a powerful model system to do genetic analysis, molecular biology, and biochemistry to find these factors. It is also a relevant system—as the microRNA pathway is highly conserved in humans and animals.

Why did you decide to get involved in undergraduate research?

I really just wanted to be in lab! I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD in genetics and that I'd need research experience to help achieve that goal. Undergraduate research gave me that opportunity.

How did your undergraduate research experience influence your career path?

My undergraduate research experience taught me the value of mentorship. I was fortunate to work with Dr. Amy McMillan, who gave me guidance when I needed it and trusted me to work independently. I found my ‘science-self’ while working full-time in her lab. I also gained the confidence that I could pursue my dream of becoming a geneticist science.

While completing my post-doc, I am also the undergraduate research coordinator in a biology lab at JHU. I currently mentor and manage 10 undergraduates. It’s rewarding to guide these talented and unique students toward their goal of conducting independent research. It’s more meaningful for me because I appreciate the opportunities I was given and the mentorship I received at Buff State.

Describe the research you did and if you presented it at any professional conference, juried art exhibit, or other off-campus location.

I characterized genetic diversity in Bald Eagles from Maine and Alaska. Over one summer I genotyped approximately four hundred Bald Eagle samples at seven polymorphic microsatellite loci. I developed a method of genotyping all seven loci in two assays and a protocol for identifying alleles. I also learned to do DNA extraction, purification, and quantitation of Bald Eagle blood and feather samples. I also conducted fieldwork, including helping in blood/feather collection and banding of Bald Eagle chicks in Gorham Maine with the BioDiversity Research Institute. Being in the field was an amazing experience and emphasized the importance of the work I was doing it lab. 

Undergraduate Research Mentor: Dr. Amy McMillan