Southeast Student Exploring E. Coli DNA Replication in NSF Summer Research


Adrienne Brauer knows all about preparation, cadence, tempo and pace as a long-distance runner on the cross country and track teams at Southeast Missouri State University.

This summer, though, she’s repurposing those skills off the course in a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) at Washington University in St. Louis where she’s working with Dr. Petra Levin, biology professor and co-director of the plant and microbial biosciences graduate program, putting in the hours, preparing for graduate school and earning the experience for a career centered in microbiology research.

Adrienne, of Oakford, Illinois, knows that success comes with training, laying the groundwork, conditioning, clearing the hurdles and striding to the finish line. A Southeast senior, Adrienne is a microbiology major with a minor in chemistry. She’s hoping her experience at Washington University helps prepare her for her next step in her educational journey.

Adrienne says she’s conducting her research this summer along with post-doctoral and other undergraduate students, examining E. coli’s ability to become more antibiotic resistant under stress.  She says she’s studying how E. coli replicate their DNA during rapid growth. When the cell is growing too fast for DNA replication to keep up, it undergoes multifork replication; this occurs when a cell’s DNA begins a second (or third or fourth) round of replication before the first round has been completed, she said.

“We use fluorescent proteins to label certain sites on the chromosome, and when you view these cells under the microscope, you see the origin and terminus glow bright red and green,” Adrienne said. “Using fluorescent imaging has been such a neat experience for me here. The microscope we use is very high tech and even allows us to make ‘movies’ of cells growing and moving over a course of hours.”

Later in the summer, she plans to clone a handful of genes into the strains she’s been working with and observing the effect on DNA replication.

“My time in the lab has been particularly rewarding and productive thanks to the two years of research I’ve spent in Dr. (Jeremy) Ellermeier’s lab at Southeast,” she said. “He taught me so much that has come into play in Dr. Levin’s lab!”

Adrienne also is attending seminars and research classes at Washington University to learn helpful skills for graduate school, such as  the “ins and outs of good researchers,” ethical considerations, communication with audiences, writing a mock grant proposal, conducting a literature review and participating in a poster presentation of her research at the conclusion of the program.

“Everyone is helpful and as a team they’ve already taught me so much,” she said. “I’ve had a taste of what my future will be like as a grad student. I’m in the lab and attending workshops and classes up to nine hours a day, learning about careers in biological sciences, new ways to analyze bacterial cells and how to become a more independent researcher creating hypotheses of my own.”

Outside of the lab, Adrienne and the other undergraduate interns have been attending classes and workshops to improve their research skills and prepare them for graduate school.

Adrienne Brauer, center, is a member of the Southeast women’s track and field team that placed second at the recent Ohio Valley Conference Track and Field Championships held at Southeast in May.

“We meet and talk with professionals from biotech companies like Pfizer and Bayer and have one-on-one advising meetings with faculty who help guide us in the right direction, whether that be pursuing a Ph.D., medical school or MTSP (Medical Scientist Training) program,” she said. “By the end of the summer, I’ll feel confident applying to some of the best microbiology programs in the country.”

Adrienne and her fellow interns also have explored St. Louis and have spent down time in the Danforth residence hall, where they’ve hosted unofficial journal clubs in the evening to discuss best ways to observe substrate localization in bacteria, she said. They’ve also had game nights, and, because she’s living near Forest Park, she’s also running in the park almost every day.

She’s says she’s appreciated the opportunity to work with both talented students and faculty members in the NSF REU this summer.

“I’m surrounded by great professionals in the field I want a career in,” she said. “Not only am I feeding my curiosity in microbiology but I’m gaining skills and knowledge necessary for me getting into a great grad school. I’m planning on getting my Ph.D. in microbiology, and the schools with the best programs are very competitive. This REU will help me immensely.”

She’s not exactly sure what her future career will look like, but it will definitely involve research.

“As much as I’ve enjoyed working with Salmonella at SEMO, I can’t wait to branch out and work with other bacteria. I would love to work for the National Institutes of Health or the CDC, but I would also enjoy teaching at a university with a research lab myself,” she said.

Adrienne says her high school science teachers sparked her interest in the sciences early on and set her on a path in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“They challenged me in class and made me love the questions in science that really make you think, which were more exciting to me than simply memorizing the definitions of vocabulary words,” she said. “The ‘aha moment’ I get studying biology is incredibly rewarding and makes me keep coming back for more,” she said. “Understanding the intricate mechanisms by which cells operate is really exciting and discovering previously unknown mechanisms is the goal we’re after.”