How Suffolk University is responding
to the coronavirus outbreak
Story by Andrea Grant
Photograph by Michael J. Clarke
After a disappointing day in the lab, roommates Thomas Tran and Domenic Abbondanza sank into their couch and switched on the TV. They used its big screen to scan for new approaches to try in the molecular genetics project consuming all their waking hours.
Tran, BS ’18, and Abbondanza, BS ’19, were trying to help their biology professors Eric De Waal and Celeste Peterson distill the essence of the groundbreaking CRISPR-Cas9 genomeediting technique into a laboratory curriculum simple enough for students to complete in a single semester.
CRISPR-Cas9 is a technique that allows scientists to edit a cell’s DNA at precise locations by cutting the DNA and modifying it through inserting, deleting, or repairing its sequence. Researchers are just starting to explore the procedure’s potential therapeutic applications for genetic disorders and conditions like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, for which cures remain elusive.
Building on a seminal paper from Harvard geneticist George Church, the pair experimented with new organisms and methods in trying to find the right sequence for the undergraduate lab setting. “As is the nature of research, failures were frequent,” says Abbondanza.
They had been working on the project for over a year, even after Tran graduated. Now they were racing against the clock, trying to finish before Abbondanza completed the biology program and Tran headed off to graduate school.
Just one week before the 2019 commencement ceremony, an email from De Waal came with the subject line: “Early graduation present for you.” It confirmed that all of the CRISPR experiments were working.
A few months later their work was published in the journal Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education in a Peterson-De Waal article outlining how to create a laboratory curriculum following their students’ method for using CRISPR-Cas9 with a simple model organism. That fall students filled Peterson’s Molecular Genetics course, breaking into pairs to get hands-on experience editing genes.
Giving undergraduates early access to “the next wave” of cutting-edge science like CRISPR will put them ahead of the curve and help them in their scientific careers, says Peterson.
Her recent alumni are living proof. Gaining experience in the lab and publishing in a peer-reviewed journal helped Tran earn a spot in the UMass-Amherst molecular and cellular biology PhD program, while Abbondanza landed his “dream job” as a researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. This spring Abbondanza and his colleagues shifted their focus to aid in the worldwide study of the coronavirus. Using a technique called spatial transcriptomics on tissue samples from patients with COVID-19, they hope to learn more about how the virus behaves and impacts different cells in the human body.
“We’re in uncharted territory here, and we have to do on-the-fly troubleshooting. My science training at Suffolk prepared me to be able to adapt,” says Abbondanza. “I definitely didn’t think my first year out of undergrad would look like this, but Suffolk does a great job of preparing students for real-life situation.