A Helping Hand to a Biomolecular Future

Mary Hamilla, with her prize-winning presentation at the Greater Capital Region Science and Engineering Fair.  

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 26, 2017) — A high school student could not ask for more of a head start to a research science career than to be working in a state-of-the-art laboratory among some of the world’s leading RNA scientists, closely mentored by a talented PhD candidate.

That’s the experience Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School junior Mary Hamilla has enjoyed since January of 2016, when Paul Agris, professor of Biological Sciences and director of The RNA Institute, provided her with the opportunity to work in his lab through Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake’s "Science Research in the High School" program.

The program, as well as the Institute's commitment to community outreach, share the aim of encouraging talented science students to continue their aspirations for research careers through early interaction with the scientific community. The result for Hamilla has been profound, both in terms of applied effort and resultant reward and acclaim.

At The RNA Institute, Hamilla has worked on generating tRNA, an essential component for life in all cells, for further analytic procedures (“assays”), including antibiotics development and research into the genetic causes of type II diabetes. She’s also looking at how bacterial gene regulatory elements can enhance the production of tRNA.

Training with biology PhD student Ville Väre, Hamilla is using small pieces of genetic material called plasmids to allow production of large quantities of the tRNA genes in bacteria. After isolating the gene, she uses a variety of biochemical techniques to produce, as well as to quantitate and assess, the purity of the tRNA.

Recently, Hamilla was able to confirm she produced a large batch of pure tRNA.

“Mary has an incredible ability to pick up new techniques and process information,” said Väre. “I have been very impressed by her maturity and command of knowledge.”

Hamilla in turn is appreciative of the mentor-based training she’s received at the Institute. “Ville provides assistance with any questions I have about procedure or theory,” she said. “And the Agris Lab has a lot to offer in terms of training support and resources." She documented more than 150 hours of lab time and gained the experience required by many schools for college freshmen to apply for research opportunities.

“I feel prepared and confident to explore scientific research as a career,” she said.

Preparation begets confidence. Hamilla entered the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair-affiliated Greater Capital Region Science and Engineering Fair, held at RPI in March. Her project, “Analysis of T7 RNA polymerase on different DNA plasmids,” earned her the Albany College of Pharmacy-Biomedical Sciences Excellence Award — a scholarship worth $20,000.

“Mary has shown true commitment to this project and I am so thankful Dr. Agris and The RNA Institute provided this incredible opportunity for her,” said Regina Reals, a chemistry teacher at Burnt Hills–Ballston Lake High School who oversees its Science Research program. “Without supportive research scientists serving as mentors, programs such as ours would not exist.”

Hamilla will continue her work in Agris’s lab through June 2018. She has plans to attend college to major in biochemistry and hopes to continue her research in microbiology.

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