CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – In a large, modern building situated in the northern industrial district of Freiberg, Germany, some of the world’s top scientists are attempting to understand the workings of the immune system, embryonic development and gene regulation.
That building is home to the internationally-renowned Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics, and this summer, Austin Peay State University student Clare Spielman will work alongside investigators, conducting groundbreaking research of gene regulation mechanisms.
“They have a program for undergrads that lasts for two to three months,” Spielman said. “They pair you with a lab, and the student does an independent research project in the lab.”
Spielman was awarded the coveted internship in part because of the innovative work she’s been doing as an APSU biology student. For the last two semesters, she’s conducted research using human breast cancer cells to identify if estrogenic compounds exist in substances such as food coloring.
“I’m using MCF7 human breast cancer cells because they are estrogen responsive,” she said. “When they’re exposed to estrogen, they will grow at an accelerated rate and can be used to identify compounds that are potentially estrogenic in an organism.”
The research, still in its early stages, could potentially identify new compounds that may act as estrogenic endocrine disruptors, which have been shown to have adverse effects on the health of humans and animals. The work, which is often painstakingly slow, requires an enormous amount of focus and dedication on Spielman’s part, but, oddly enough, when it came time to first attend college, she had little interest in the sciences.
“Maybe I was just burned out in the sciences from taking AP classes in high school,” she said. “I just wanted to take other classes and explore other things.”
Spielman, a Chicago native, opted to go east to Brandeis University in Massachusetts. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, with a minor in journalism, and then headed to South America where she taught English and worked for a nonprofit organization, and later in international business.
Eventually, her long-dormant interest in the sciences returned. Spielman decided she wanted to return to the states and purse a Ph.D. in one of the biomedical sciences. The only problem was, her Bachelor of Arts degree from Brandeis didn’t satisfy the prerequisite requirements needed to enter science-related doctoral programs.
But in the intervening years while Spielman was in South America, her family ended up moving to the Nashville area. When she returned, she too decided to make her home in Tennessee and enroll at APSU to fulfill the prerequisites needed for her to enter a Ph.D. program.
“I knew I wanted to change careers and get a Ph.D. in one of the biological sciences, but I wasn’t sure which one,” she said. “But since I’ve been here, I decided I’m most interested in genetics and epigenetics.”
According to the Max Planck Institute, epigenetics is a field that “focuses on the inheritance of characteristics that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence. This new research focus is expected to lead to a better understanding of diseases and cancers that cannot be defined in strictly genetic terms.”
When Spielman returns to APSU this fall, she plans to continue her work of identifying estrogenic compounds. She was recently awarded a Presidential Research Scholarship for the fall semester to support her investigations.
For more information on Spielman or her research, contact the APSU Department of Biology at 221-7781.