A STEM Standout

August 28, 2019

CBS undergraduate Macy Vollbrecht shares her thoughts on receiving the Astronaut Scholarship and her interest in genetics. 

Macy Vollbrecht

This scholarship will aid toward your research endeavors. What are you planning to use this scholarship for and what draws you to that area of research? What are you hoping to find?
This scholarship will help fund my undergraduate education and in turn relieve some of the financial stress of graduate school. The funding will help me devote more time to my senior thesis research this year without working another job on the side, which is really exciting. At the U of M, I have been doing research in Dr. Dan Voytas’ lab for about 2.5 years. The lab works on developing novel techniques for plant genome engineering, which has important implications for basic plant biology, improving crop stress tolerance, and generally addressing issues of food security. My current project is co-delivering developmental regulator genes with gene editing reagents to accelerate gene editing in potato. With this project, we are ultimately hoping to streamline the process of generating gene edited plants by bypassing certain bottlenecks often inherent in this process.

Why study GCD?
The summer after my junior year of high school I participated in the Young Engineers & Scientists program at Iowa State University which was a summer research internship for 20 students in central Iowa. My project involved designing CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing reagents to knockout potential tumor suppressor genes in zebrafish to learn about their function. I thought it was pretty amazing that I could look at the zebrafish genome sequence on my computer, pick a sequence that I wanted to genetically edit, and order DNA fragments online matching that sequence to facilitate gene editing at that sequence. It was exciting to get results showing that my experiments were working and I learned so much about biology and performing research that summer. 

What are your career goals and what's interesting to you about that career path?
I am applying for Ph.D. programs in genetics this coming fall. I’m not sure whether I would like to ultimately stay in academia or eventually work in industry. I am open to both tracks and feel I need to get further into my education to decide what my desired endpoint is. My current plan is to keep pursuing research experiences that excite me since this has worked well so far!

What intrigues you in particular in doing gene editing?
Gene editing can be applied to various global issues, ranging from agricultural to biomedical in nature. I find it exciting that we can use 'genetic scissors’ to make precise genomic modifications that help address these issues. These modifications can lead to the development of more nutritious crops, viruses that fight off devastating infections, or other personalized therapeutics. This gene editing technology isn’t perfect at its current state, so my interest has been in progressing its accuracy, utility, and general efficacy in both plant and animal systems.

What impact do you hope to make in your future career and why that area?
In graduate school, I want to study developmental biology. This area of research uses a variety of techniques, including gene editing, to understand how genetics control certain developmental processes, such as how stem cells become other cell types (like blood cells or muscle cells). Insight into how cells or organisms develop is essential for our broader understanding of how genomes translate into the vast visual and functional diversity of life.