The Smaller Things in Life

By Tre’Andice Williams

Do you ever think about the smaller things in life? So small, you are unable to view with a naked eye. Well, let’s take a minute to visualize a microscopic protist. Kind of hard, right? To be able to view it clearly and distinguish different organelles within the species one would need to use a microscope. But imagine being able to receive as much information without viewing the specimen. How, you ask? Genome sequencing. 

Clathrocanium, a type of single-celled phytoplankton, photographed by Senior Research Scientist John Burns.

Genome sequencing is working with the organism’s functional components. Over the last past seven weeks, I have been learning how to code virtually. Yes I said it: VIRTUALLY. You’re on a computer for hours, seven days a week learning how to use algorithms to contribute more useful information to science. Me specifically, I have been looking at different organisms’, like protist, algae, and zooplankton, modes of nutrition and what proteins are needed to determine each mode. 

Who would have thought in the summer of 2020 I would be working with Dr. John Burns at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and Jess Liu at Vassar College in the Department of Biology. Dr. Burns’ interest in research involves genetically encoding single celled organisms in different forms  and determining how those characteristics influence their ecosystem functions. The single celled organisms he looks at are especially important because they are the basis of the marine food chain, and a major contributor to the process that replenishes our atmosphere. Without these little creatures, it would not be possible for life on earth to exist.

A virtual research group meeting.

My research project will study single celled organisms’ genome sequences using the model created by Dr. Burns called “predictive trophic mode”. This model will be used to see whether or not knocking off a fraction of the genome will still allow the model to actually predict how the organism functions. This study could change the biogeochemical and trophic dynamic concept, allowing more accuracy in data analysis involving these organisms. This is also useful information for the community as some single celled organisms live within our intestines to help breakdown food.

Participating in the Bigelow summer research program has been a very interesting and fun experience. When the director of the program sent out an email regarding how they were going to run the program due to this nationwide pandemic, I was a bit nervous. I wasn’t sure if I was fit to communicate virtually. Eight weeks into the program, and I’m saddened by how it’s about to conclude. Surprisingly, this virtual experience was extremely insightful. The information received throughout this program not only was interesting but will also aid me with my future plans.

Wishing I could go into detail and explain week by week what was planned throughout this ten week summer program but unfortunately like most things in life, it must come to an end. Research is extremely important as it provides a helping hand to understanding many different aspects in the universe. What stands out the most is how each and every last individual pursuing a degree can have a divergent path but still reach their ultimate destination.

Tre’Andice Williams is a Truman State University student in Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. This intensive experience provides an immersion in ocean research with an emphasis on state-of-the-art methods and technologies.

The Smaller Things in Life