Young researchers study reproductive challenges

By Linda Breazeale
MSU Ag Communications

MISSISSIPPI STATE — Their classmates may be taking the summer off, but two
undergraduate students at Mississippi State University are spending long
hours in a laboratory conducting studies that would challenge seasoned
researchers.

Their supervisor, Erdogan Memili, is not surprised. He nominated Alexis
Parisi and Kate Thompson for National Science Foundation research programs
for elite undergraduates.

³Students like Alexis and Kate, with their motivation for research, will be
pioneers in science,² said Memili, an associate professor in animal and
dairy science. ³They will help shape the way scientists address issues in
reproduction.²

Parisi graduated from Lafayette High School in Oxford in 2009 and plans to
finish her bachelor¹s degree in animal and dairy science in December. She is
a fellow in the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates in Computational
Biology, directed by Andy Perkins of MSU¹s Department of Computer Science
and Engineering.

Thompson, a native of Picayune, is a 2011 graduate of the Mississippi School
for Mathematics and Science. Majoring in biochemistry with a minor in
business administration, Thompson is taking part in the NSF Undergraduate
Research and Mentoring program in functional genomics.

Memili, a researcher with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry
Experiment Station, said the students are getting experience working with a
variety of scientists across campus, including the College of Veterinary
Medicine.

³We are both working on different challenges to improve reproduction in
mammals,² Parisi said. ³My efforts focus on improving bulls¹ sperm viability
during the freezing process.²

Although the process for freezing sperm for artificial insemination has been
around for decades, Parisi said she expects to improve viability of the
stored sperm, thereby increasing animal production and lowering costs.

³I¹m using antioxidants to strengthen the sperm and protect them from damage
during the freezing process,² she said. ³The use of antioxidants has
exploded in recent years to address concerns such as aging and fertility.²

Thompson is investigating a variety of sperm-borne micro-ribonucleic acids,
or miRNA, and their different impacts on sperm.

³Both of us use computational biology or software programs that predict and
illustrate the biological processes we are studying,² Thompson said.

Both students expressed long-term plans to pursue doctorates.

³The miRNAs target certain genes and affect them differently. We are seeing
that in addition the genetic material, sperm also provide gene products,
such as RNAs and proteins to the egg, which most people do not realize,²
Thompson said. ³As I examine the miRNAs that have never been studied, I
expect to see their roles in embryonic development. These findings will help
us understand early mammalian development better, predict fertility and aid
in the development of pharmaceutical treatments for infertility.²

While the young researchers will complete their NSF programs this summer,
their research projects will continue. They will present their findings at
national and international scientific conferences and publish the new
information in scientific journals.