It takes curiosity to be a good scientist—a drive to keep asking questions, especially when the answers lead to more. At Governors State University, Aparna Palakodeti shares her passion for learning as a Biology lecturer, turning students into scientists.
“Learning how the nervous system works is something a student might not remember. But looking at a figure or a diagram, trying to understand the pathways and asking, ‘Why is this happening at this particular point?’ That’s a skill that will serve them no matter where they go.”Palakodeti, who joined GSU’s College of Arts & Sciences in 2017, has an intimate connection with science. Earning her Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology from the University of Chicago, she worked as a research professional in a lab that participated in the nationwide Cancer Genome Atlas Project (TCGA) to help collect DNA samples of every type of cancer from 500 patients in the U.S.
At the University of Chicago, Palakodeti also indulged her passion for teaching. During her doctoral and postdoctoral tenure, Palakodeti helped guide research and medical students through lab rotations. Before that, she tutored K-12 students in her native India.
GSU Newsroom: Explain how your work with TCGA project might help cancer patients?
Palakodeti: The idea of this project was to create a repository of all the genes from different cancers and put it out there for researchers to sift through so they can come up with some common themes in these different cancers. Through this project, researchers all over the world have access to data on the genes that could be mutated or altered in different cancers. For instance, if a researcher is interested in pancreatic cancer, they could use this repository to build a predictive model for the probability of a pancreatic cyst becoming cancerous. In the long term, research using data in this repository could be used to develop diagnostic tools or treatment modalities for cancer patients. It was fascinating to be associated with this project.
GSU Newsroom: How did you become interested in molecular biology?
Palakodeti: One of my interests early on was cancer biology. During my coursework for my Ph.D., I spent time in a lab that did cancer research. I got really interested in it because it dealt with what happens inside your cells—how a little tweak here and there completely disrupts the cell network. I wanted to learn more about it. Everyone knows someone who has, or is battling some type of cancer. I was interested in the molecular aspects of it, so that’s where my molecular journey started.
GSU Newsroom: How did you begin working in genetics?
Palakodeti: During my Ph.D. studies, our lab was interested in regions on human chromosomes that break very easily. They’re fragile. Other researchers observed these breaks in cancer cells too. One question we and others asked was, 'What makes the chromosomes break specifically at those points?' We hypothesized that something happens during DNA replication- this is when the DNA tries to make a copy of itself.
There are many instances when DNA makes copies of itself. If you bruise your skin, there’s a gap that needs to be filled in by neighboring cells. So the DNA needs to copy, then the cell needs to copy.
To test our hypothesis, we used chemicals that slow down the replication process in cells in the lab. Sure enough, we saw that there was a correlation between slowdown of DNA replication and formation of breaks at those sites. We concluded that the cells didn’t have enough time to make a copy of DNA properly resulting in gaps that went on to become breaks. Later on our lab did a large-scale study where we looked at the effect of slowing down replication on all the fragile sites on human chromosomes. It was fascinating.
GSU Newsroom: How do you approach teaching students who aren’t interested in science?
Palakodeti: The biggest challenge is motivating students. I teach human biology for non-biology majors. I try to make it relatable, and tell them that the course is a journey into our bodies and the world around us.
For example, many of us have family members with diabetes. I’ll say, ‘Talk to me about your family, about what you notice. What symptoms do you see? What do you think could be going wrong to produce those symptoms?’
I think that gets them interested in it. It’s true that biology is sometimes taught by rote memorization and that can get pretty dull. But I think making it relevant and making a story out of it really helps.
GSU Newsroom: How do you help develop future scientists at GSU?
Palakodeti: I try my best to incorporate the scientific method in my labs. For example, in my animal physiology class, I try to design the lab sessions as a small research exercise. The students are asked to formulate a hypothesis and I encourage them to ask, “How would I test this? What results do I expect from this experiment?” Then, when they get their data, how do you read it? What conclusion do you draw from it? You started out with a prediction; is that prediction true or false?”
It’s a great feeling when students are really interested in a certain topic, talking and asking questions. I feel like it broadens my perspective, too. Along the way, they learn something and I learn something. I feel very gratified by the whole process of teaching.