Spotting a Breakthrough

Published: Jun 10, 2004

“Definitely, horses are my passion,” Dr. Rebecca Terry says. The room around her, a tidy office in the new science wing of the Cass Building, visually reverberates that passion.

“I tell my research students all the time that you have to have passion for what you’re doing.”

In particular, Terry’s passion is Appaloosas, those equine creatures that sport the most fascinating spots this side of Dalmatia.

 

Owner of her own Appaloosa, the effervescent assistant professor of biology revels in the rare joy of living her passion through her work, living it again in her free time, and more, extending it into new research with implications that could touch a lot of lives.

 

“We’re trying to identify the genes that cause Appaloosa spotting in horses,” she says with obvious enthusiasm. “Last year, I had three students help me extract DNA from the blood. We used that blood over the summer to locate one of the genes that we now know is on horse chromosome one. And now, one of the students in my lab actually is trying to identify a candidate gene in that region, to research further to see if we can find the mutation that causes it.

 

“And then the other area that my students work on is, they actually do genetic testing for local breeders. There is one test called the Tobiano test, which is a paint test, and breeders want to know whether their horses are homozygous or heterozygous —whether they have two copies or one copy. If they have two copies, then, no matter what they breed that horse to, the offspring will be a Tobiano horse.”

 

They also do “red gene” and “black gene” testing, Terry says, and are working to identify the gene that causes “champagne” coloring.

 

The students are volunteers. They are unpaid, they don’t get class credit, and they work outside of and in addition to class time. They are propelled by their love of science, with maybe a little extra career ambition thrown in.

 

Hoity-toity, Fancy Little Piece of Equipment

  

Terry got her Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky, and returned there in the summer of 2003 to further her research. UK is deep in the heart of horse country, but proximity to her favorite creatures is by no means the only draw.

 

“I went back because they have this hoity-toity, fancy little piece of equipment that I was able to use to actually do the research to localize that gene in horse chromosome one.”

 

That little machine is an automated sequencer, which detects fluorescent dyes as they’re added to the reaction, isolating things called micro-satellites, allowing the Rebecca Terrys of the world to separate the hoity from the toity, so to speak. There’s one at Texas A&M, too, Terry says, as well as something known as a bacterial clone laboratory, so this summer’s trip will be to College Station, TX.

 

Does she believe there’s a genetic breakthrough hiding in the research?

 

“What I hope to do is understand more about melanocytes and melanocyte migration, in hopes of, in the future, better understanding melanomas in humans.”

 

The other reason for her research, she says, is to pinpoint the particular mutation that causes Appaloosa spotting, and develop a test similar to the Tobiano test, “so that breeders aren’t just making blind decisions when they’re breeding two horses to get the particular trait that they want.”

 

While one gene alone determines the presence of Appaloosa spotting, Terry says, several genes come into play to determine which of the seven varieties of spotting will appear on the horse.

 

Juxtaposing Elements

  

The story of Terry’s choice of specialization is one of life’s minor curiosities that, like so many, was a matter of time juxtaposing elements of reality, like so many genes juxtaposing traits.

 

“I went to the University of Florida to get my bachelor’s degree, and I was pre-med. I was going to go to medical school, because my dad wanted me to take over his practice. Then, I was going to be a physical therapist, but I didn’t like any of that.

 

“I’d always had an interest in horses, but I was born with one kidney, so I couldn’t ride.” That, she said, was a decision made by her parents. But after heading off to college, she decided to take the chance.

 

“I thought, ‘Okay, I’m out of the nest. I’m able to ride horses now.’” And ride she did, right onto the UF equestrian team.

At the same time, she took a general biology course that touched on genetics just enough to spark her interest. That spark turned into a good hot fire once she opted for classes in genetics.

 

“I thought, ‘That’s really cool,’” after the general course. “Then, I took a genetics course, and I thought, ‘That’s really cool!’ And then, I took this course called ‘Genetic Improvement of Farm Animals,’ and that was it.” Her world was ablaze with riding horses and thinking genetics. The two naturally swirled together.

 

“We got to pick which animals we wanted to breed—horses, cattle, dogs, sheep, pigs. We did it all. I started to learn at that point what was known in the area about horses and coat color. And I said, ‘Hmmm—nobody understands this Appaloosa thing. ’” [Brief pause for the light bulb.] “‘I think I want to understand this Appaloosa thing!’

 

“So, that’s when I applied to the University of Kentucky to go to graduate school.”

 

After finishing her doctorate at UK, Terry returned to Florida to work at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

“I did research on mice,” she said, “and I didn’t have passion for that.”

 

But the work involved genetics and their role in skin cancer. The fire still burned, if a bit dimly. Given the chance to research genetics while teaching at UT, Terry had her passion back, and the cancer research angle was added to the fire.

 

Learning More than the Basics

 

  

In the crowded fluorescent din of Terry’s lab, her three dedicated helpers share a little about themselves while they perform a series of routine yet complex chemical tests on blood and hair from horses.

Each of the three cites enhanced learning as her primary rationale for the work, which takes considerable time that their more typical classmates might use to relax, work for pay, or complete assignments for their credit courses.

  

Erin Flaherty, a senior majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry, plans to attend graduate school after her May graduation from UT, and has set forensic biology as her eventual career destination.

  

“I thought that this would give me good technique and some good knowledge to use for that career goal and for graduate school,” the Brewster, NY, native says, with just a hint of her accent showing. Forensic biology, she explains, makes its home on the scientific side of law enforcement, with DNA analysis and chromatography its staple activities. She has assisted in Terry’s lab since April of last year.

  

Like her mentor, Flaherty originally was in the pre-med program, so her interest in genetics came before her interest in forensics, rather than the other way around. And, again like her mentor, that interest was sparked by a general genetics course.

  

“I’m not really positive how I got interested in forensics,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in it, I guess. And I changed my mind from med school. So, the next thing I know, I would walk by Dr. Terry’s office and see her research stuff outside, so I just went and asked her about what she does, and I just started.”

  

Naz Gandikal, a junior biology major who minors in chemistry, gravitated toward the new and adventurous, as so many of the world’s best scientists do. Born in Kuwait City, Kuwait, she has been a Florida resident since age 1.

  

“I got involved with Dr. Terry because I mentored for her lab—her bio lab—and we were just talking one day, and she told me about a side of equine genetics I had never heard about—people testing a fetus for what kind of coat color the horse would have.

  

“I wanted to go into medicine for nutritional and cancer research,” she says, “but I figured you don’t often get the opportunity to work in equine genetics, and I thought it would be a good chance to try something new, and pick up different techniques, because any med school or graduate school is going to expect you to have some experience.

  

Deepa Patel, a junior pre-med biology major taking minors in chemistry and business, shares the rationale of her lab-mates, although her career focus remains fixed on medical school. As Gandikal’s roommate, Patel quickly got word that Terry was seeking more help.

  

Gandikal told her that she could work in the research lab, and the open invitation seemed a perfect fit for the med school hopeful.

  

“I want to be a pediatrician. When you go to medical school, you have to do a lot of research, and they expect some sort of background.

  

Born to Indian parents in Kansas City, MO, the likely future physician values her hands-on time with the various instruments of the trade.

  

“We touched a little bit on it in classes that we’ve taken,” she says, “but you just pretty much learn the basics in classes.”

How much help are they to Terry in her research pursuits? As this article goes to press, she is taking on a fourth student lab volunteer. With that, though, she feels she’s reached her limit.

  

“I wouldn’t want more than four,” she says with a laugh. “They’re a little hard to keep track of.”