CLEMSON, South Carolina – The familiar signs of a research symposium were on view on Sept. 22 when students from the College of Science gathered in the Hendrix Student Center to present the latest results of their independent research.

zach points to his poster

Zach Gerstner studies the bioinformatics of intellectual disorders in the department of genetics and biochemistry.
Image Credit: Pete Martin / Clemson University

Easels, posters and sharply dressed undergraduate students from the departments of biological sciences, genetics and biochemistry, chemistry, physics and astronomy and mathematical sciences were in attendance for the second annual College of Science Undergraduate Research Showcase.

The theme of this year’s showcase was centered on the cross-disciplinary efforts that young scientists at Clemson University are putting forth to bridge the life sciences with the physical and mathematical sciences.

Named a top-tier research institution by the Carnegie Foundation in 2016, Clemson competes in the laboratory with other prominent universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Harvard University. Independent research on the undergraduate level is a rare opportunity that Clemson students get to participate in on a daily basis.

“An undergraduate research experience is very beneficial for students, for a lot of reasons. Probably, the most important reason is that it’s a window on science in the making, because these students are working on authentic research questions that really don’t have answers yet,” said Lesly Temesvari, the associate dean of research for the College of Science. “They’re not contrived research projects; rather, the students are discovering the answers, allowing them to play the role of a research scientist.”

One of those students is Zach Gerstner, a senior who is pursuing a dual Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology and genetics. For his spot in the research showcase, Gerstner used bioinformatics techniques to study the genetic interactions of intellectual disorders, like autism and epilepsy.

“I generated a visual network of the differing genetic interaction types, and I checked the network for modular enrichment, which means I looked for groups of genes that shared a concentrated, particular function,” Gerstner said.

Analysis of the gene network revealed that some of the genes at play in autism and epilepsy had overlapping genetic interactions that influenced neuronal health.

Alexis points to poster while cooper stands beside her

Alexis Harris (left) and Cooper Hall are juniors in microbiology.
Image Credit: Pete Martin / Clemson University

“In the long term, this suggests that we can start targeting particular points in the interaction network, and in a potentially undefined regulatory network that we haven’t hammered down yet. If we can target that, we could be able to lessen the impact of these genes in autistic, epileptic and other intellectually impaired people,” Gerstner said.

Cooper Hall and Alexis Harris, both juniors in microbiology, presented their research on the microbiome of water in the Delaware Bay.

“We isolated microbes from the water and sequenced their genomes to see specifically how they are affected by different changes in the water, such as temperature, salinity and time of day,” Hall said.

The duo discovered that when there’s an abundance of saltwater in the Delaware Bay, the genetic diversity and activity of the microbes were reduced. But increasing the temperature of the water – to conditions like that of spring or summer – did the opposite by boosting the microbes’ activity.

“From here, we want to look at gene expression to see if we can determine that the diversity we noticed is contributed to these factors,” Harris said. “That will help people who use the Delaware Bay to know what type of bacteria and microbes are in the water when they’re fishing or boating, to actually have a safe environment.”

Studies of health at the molecular level were continued with Gabriella Wheeler, a junior majoring in physics, who conducts research on a protein called PSD95 that is implicated in strokes.

dean young speaks exuberantly with Gabriella

Gabriella Wheeler (left) speaks to Dean Young about a protein associated with strokes.
Image Credit: Pete Martin / Clemson University

Within PSD95 are two PDZ domains, or parts, that are responsible for anchoring other proteins to the cytoskeleton, the structure that gives cells their shape and mechanical support. Wheeler’s role in the project focused on determining how many measurements are necessary to get an accurate model of the two PDZ domains.

“The big idea is that the two PDZ domains in PSD95 have been linked to the spread of neurotoxicity after a stroke, so if we can find a way to inhibit those domains and their interaction with receptors nearby, then we might be able to limit the damage after a stroke,” Wheeler said.

Given that the research showcase took place during the university’s Family Weekend, a number of parents attended the event and were impressed by the research being conducted by College of Science students.

After the showcase, some of these parents and their Clemson-student-children attended a lab held by Victoria Corbin and Katherine Freeman, the director and instructor, respectively, of the Clemson University Life Sciences Outreach Center. In the lab, families extracted DNA from strawberries and were able to preserve it in ethanol to take home after the fact.

Photographs from the day’s activities can be found on the College of Science Facebook page. Questions about the showcase can be directed to Lesly Temesvari at