Undergraduate Research

Anna Francis '23

OUR Featured Researcher: Anna Francis '23

Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones
Photo credit: Unknown

Anna Francis (she/her) is a Biology major conducting mentored research under Professor Lisa Ryno. Her project is titled "Transcriptomic analysis of rhamnose treatment on E. coli planktonic and biofilm cells".

Please describe your project: 

In nature, bacteria alternate between two modes of growth: a mobile swimming state and a sessile biofilm state. In the biofilm state, bacteria form surface-associated colonies surrounded by extracellular substance (EPS). EPS contains a complex mixture of biomolecules that protect bacteria from adverse environmental conditions, such as antibiotic treatment. Because of this, biofilms pose a key challenge to public healthcare and agriculture. Biofilm formation greatly depends on sugar availability in the environment. To characterize the relationship between environmental sugars and biofilm formation, we are studying the influence of the sugar rhamnose on E. coli biofilm growth. We are developing a catalog of E. coli genes influenced by rhamnose under varying experimental conditions. To determine how rhamnose influences the expression of genes involved in biofilm formation, we are using common techniques in molecular biology, microbiology, and biochemistry, including cell culture, RNA harvesting, PCR, qPCR, and RNA-seq.

A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project: 

Biofilm formation is a natural phenomenon in which clusters of bacteria attach to an inert surface and embed themselves in thick layers of extracellular substances. Biofilm formation augments antibiotic resistance in bacteria and poses an elevated risk to global health. To study the environmental conditions that aid in biofilm formation, we are measuring changes in E. coli gene expression that occur in response to sugar, an environmentally abundant, major nutrient source.

What does the process of doing your research look like?

A typical day in Professor Ryno’s research lab includes planning, troubleshooting, and executing experiments, analyzing data, and writing up results. Students in the Ryno lab focus on different areas of research that tackle antibiotic resistance at different scales. My project studies antibiotic resistance in E. coli at the transcriptomic level and employs an array of modern techniques in biology, including RT-PCR, qPCR, and RNA-seq.

Why is your research important?

The spread of antibiotic resistance among bacteria raises a significant challenge to global
health. Our research provides insight into the environmental nutrients that influence the
development of antibiotic resistance in E. coli. Our findings will establish a potential link between sugar metabolism and biofilm formation that can be used to develop new antibiofilm and antibiotic drugs to combat multi-resistant E. coli.

How did you get involved in research?

During my first two years at Oberlin, I explored my research interests through different lab activities, courses, and workshops in the STEM department. I developed a passion for microbiology, molecular biology, and public health that drove me to seek out research opportunities in these fields. I was immediately drawn to Professor Ryno’s lab because it
provided the opportunity to study the intersection between these three disciplines while gaining hands-on experience in an experimental lab.

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

One of my favorite aspects of the research process is the opportunity to explore the unknown and tread on new territory. Research presents the unique challenge of discovering and contributing something new to the field.

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project?

My mentorship experience has played a major role in shaping my scientific identity by offering guidance, support, and encouragement in my personal and professional development. My mentor has fostered my learning and instilled in me a strong sense of confidence in my research abilities. My work with my mentor has prepared and inspired me to pursue a research career in biomedical science.

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?

Through my research, I have gained practice and experience with techniques in molecular biology, microbiology, and biochemistry. I have also gained practice with collecting and analyzing data as well as preparing and delivering oral presentations. This has helped me narrow my research interests, network with more students and professors in the STEM community, and apply what I have learned from lectures to real life situations.

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field?

I would advise students to adopt a proactive approach to undergraduate research by
establishing strong connections to professors and other students in STEM early on, immersing themselves in the literature, and experimenting with working in different research fields. Another important piece of advice is to become actively involved with the research community, which will help students gain insight into the array of research projects offered at Oberlin.