Ever since she can remember, UTMB graduate student Elizabeth Jaworski has had “a thing” for science.
“I love it so much! I really do. It can be a huge challenge but it’s fun—you’re at the forefront of discovery, which is really exciting,” she says.
After writing a paper on genetics in high school, Jaworski’s passion for science steered her toward an undergraduate degree in biology, and now, a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology at UTMB. She’s currently a fifth-year graduate student and research assistant in Dr. Andrew Routh’s lab, studying the evolution of viruses.
“We’re looking specifically at RNA viruses—including viruses like the rhinovirus, which is the most frequent cause of the common cold, and Coxsackievirus which causes hand, foot and mouth disease—and how they mutate over time,” explains Jaworski. “I think viruses are super cool because they are not technically alive, but they still somehow have such a huge impact on any organism—they are this crazy scientific anomaly.”
Jaworski hopes to pass on her curiosity and enthusiasm for biomedical research by mentoring younger students. When I meet up with her on a mid-week afternoon in the Truman G. Blocker Medical Research Building on the Galveston Campus, she’s prepping for the next step of an experiment that she and a local high school senior have been working on together since September. It’s Jaworski’s third year as a mentor with UTMB’s Bench Tutorials Program, which gives exceptional Ball High School students the rare opportunity to work one-on-one in the lab with a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow conducting real-world research.
“This is these students’ first experience in a lab—it makes a huge impression on them,” says Jaworski. “I’ve been lucky to have had good mentors along the way. As much as people say a person’s success is their own responsibility, a mentor that lets you grow and pushes you to develop in the direction you want to go is really important.”
As Jaworski reflects back on her first lab experience in college—she worked with insects such as bed bugs and termites—her mentee, Gabriela Martinez arrives. The two chat about Martinez’s college acceptance letters as they put on purple lab coats, safety glasses and gloves. Then, they walk over to a large sixth-floor window that overlooks campus and which is covered in dry erase marker.
“These are my lists of things I have to do—it’s like an extra-large white board,” laughs Jaworski, pointing at the window. “I map out my experimental designs on here and then make lists of tasks so I can glance at it quickly and know what I have to do next. To say there’s always something to do is a total understatement.”
Jaworski motions toward the board and quizze
s Martinez about what they did in their last session together and what they need to do moving forward. Martinez explains how they are studying the evolution of what are called “defective interfering viral RNA genomes” of an insect virus called Flock House. They’re working to understand how changes to its genome affect the virus’ ability to replicate. It’s a complex concept for those without an advanced science background, but Martinez is able to confidently describe how they previously transfected—or inserted virus genomes—into fruit fly cells. Today, they will be collecting samples from the cell cultures.
“Bingo! Good job,” Jaworski says to Martinez, adding, “Every year, these kids blow me away. They just keep getting better each year, too. I’m like, how is this even possible? I’m so incredibly impressed every time.”
The two head into an adjacent room with three different tissue culture “hoods,” which look like work benches with a protective glass barrier. The hoods are designed to filter air in a way that provides a sterile work environment to protect both the researcher and the materials they are working with. But first, they must spray all equipment with ethanol and label tubes that will hold the harvested cells.
“This is the not-so-fun part of science,” says Jaworski with a smile. “But it’s crucial—if something isn’t clean or labeled right, it could ruin an experiment.”
While Jaworski makes sure Martinez understands the importance of the “boring stuff” like cleaning, labeling and learning the fundamentals of pipetting, she also makes sure Martinez gets hands-on experience helping with critical research.
“Gabby is helping with real research that could someday help predict future
virus outbreaks or lead to possible vaccines—we hope to finish this project and publish our findings in a scientific journal,” says Jaworski. “She’s not here to do grunt work or wash beakers; it’s so much more than that.”
Jaworski watches as Martinez pulls several cell culture plates from an incubator and takes a look at them under the microscope. Together, they move the cells to the hooded area, where Martinez carefully uses a pipette to extract cells and place them in various tubes. They are collected based on when the transfection took place—24, 48, 72 or 96 hours before. Every step is recorded in a notebook so Jaworski can replicate the experiment if needed.
It’s a tedious process that takes a steady hand and attention to detail, but Jaworski patiently coaches Martinez through each step. As the afternoon turns into evening, Jaworski and Martinez wrap up for the day. When they meet again, they will be ready to start running experiments on the collected cells to see how the virus responds under certain conditions. Martinez says she always looks forward to the two days a week that she gets to spend in the lab with Jaworski.
“I love it, actually” says Martinez, who will be the first in her family to attend college and is thinking about pursuing both an MD and PhD. “Elizabeth breaks everything down into a way that I can understand. Being able to work with her has been a great opportunity. It’s not like we are repeating something that another scientist has already done. We are doing new stuff that will actually help people in the future.”
After Martinez leaves, Jaworski will stay in the lab for several more hours, working on her thesis (she hopes to graduate this May), collaborating with lab mates, writing papers, preparing for conferences or designing and running other experiments— searching for the next “aha” moment.
“Sometimes a finding might be really small or not what you expected, but at that point in time, you’re the only person on the planet that knows that one thing… and eventually all those little pieces come together and you get these great findings and discoveries,” says Jaworski. “That’s what’s so exciting and makes every struggle along the way worth it.”