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CSS scholar Pascale Paul in the Weeks lab.

Research Profile: From the Classroom to the Lab

October 13, 2022

Pascale Paul (UNC ’25, CSS 9) is a chemistry and neuroscience double-major from Ashburn, VA. Her research into complex RNA systems will help scientists address challenges in medicine–and directly links her classroom learning to real-world applications in the lab.

Where do you conduct your research?

I am currently working in the Weeks Lab under Dr. Kevin Weeks in the UNC Department of Chemistry.

What research questions does your lab study?

My lab is investigating the many ways in which RNAs can be studied and manipulated. RNA is a central conduit for biological information transfer, and yet we lack information about the structure and molecular mechanisms of most RNAs. Therefore, the first vision of the lab is to develop “chemical microscopes” that can uncover more information about the three-dimensional folding of RNA in cells and viruses. The information gathered by such microscopes can be translated into readable data by the use of computational biology and bioinformatics. The second vision of the lab is to use the information gathered from the microscopes as well as other technologies invented in our lab to study complex RNA-based systems that play substantial roles in cellular function and human disease. This will lead to answers as to how modify the genetic code in order to combat immediate challenges in medicine.

Please tell us a little about your specific research project.

In my project, I am looking at the SERPINA1 gene, which plays a significant role in expressing a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin. Deficiency of this protein is a major genetic cause of COPD, liver disease, and asthma, which is why we are interested in what can affect expression of this protein. I will be determining whether introducing single synonymous mutations that introduce rare codons to the coding sequence will have an effect on protein expression. The results of this project will help us understand whether synonymous mutations are truly “silent”, and how they manage to affect protein expression without changing the amino acid sequence.

How has this experience shaped your future goals?

This research experience has given me insight as to what the career pathway for research looks like. Throughout the course of my research experience, I have spoken with graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, lab technicians, and other undergraduates to hear about their own experiences as well as what led them to work in this lab. I feel like working with them has only reaffirmed me in my goal to pursue research as a profession, and in the future join another cohort of researchers who all have the same passion to uncover new discoveries in the STEM field. I look forward to learning more from all the people in my lab, as well as the opportunity to apply this knowledge in future research.

What has been the most fun or interesting part of your research?

The most fun part of my research is being able to see a direct line between what I learn in my chemistry and biology classes and their large-scale applications in the research I am doing. It feels as if I can see exactly how what I am studying now serves as the background for pretty much all the fields I want to investigate in the future. I also enjoy exercising the scientific method on a day-to-day basis, and seeing how even as an undergraduate, I get to have a taste of what it feels like to be a “real researcher.” I truly hope every other undergraduate gets a chance to see the value in research in their own eyes.

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