Aiken, SC (04/18/2023) — As a steady stream of students, faculty and family members filled the gymnasium at the USC Aiken Student Activities Center for this year's Scholar Showcase, Zara Lacera was ready.
It's the third year the molecular biology major, now a junior, has submitted a poster presentation to the annual showcase of USC Aiken student research. Lacera is mentored by C. Nathan Hancock, a plant biologist, associate professor of biology and geology, and director of sponsored research. Hancock recognized Lacera's interest and talent in biology during an introductory biology class her freshman year and invited her to join the Hancock Lab in her second college semester.
For the past three years, Lacera has researched transposable elements and how to manipulate them to regulate transposition. Her poster this year, Homology-Based Optimization of the Pong Transposase Protein, continues that work. Lacera and Hancock hypothesized that they could replace certain amino acids in the Pong transposase protein, creating hyperactive protein strains. These strains could then be used to increase transposition in mPing, a transposable element found in rice. Their work confirmed that hypothesis; the next step is to combine these new strains to see if that combination could make transposition occur even more.
It's high-level stuff that has practical applications. "Mutations can be harmful, but they can also be beneficial," said Lacera. "If we can understand how to make these transposable elements move more or move less, we can better understand mutations and possibly apply it to crops"-including growing new versions of plants that, for example, are more resistant to insects or disease.
It feels like graduate-level work, and for Lacera, that's one of the biggest benefits of USC Aiken. Along with the Scholar Showcase, she's had multiple opportunities to showcase her student research at SCAS, Discover USC, and at USC Aiken's Summer Scholar Institute presentations. The work is also good training for her chosen career in forensics; for example, she's working with equipment such as PCR that she might one day use in a professional capacity to analyze DNA from blood samples.
Her work in Dr. Hancock's lab has also taught her other life lessons. "I've learned that science doesn't always work," she said. "Sometimes you have to do an experiment over and over again. It teaches you patience because you're repeating a process, and it teaches you how to have a steady hand to do small parts of the experiment."
Lacera says that it was a field trip in middle school to USC Aiken's Ruth Patrick Science Education Center that sparked her interest in science. Now she's come full circle. "USC Aiken has been a great experience," she said. "It really motivates me and the students around me that we have a place where we can present what we've done. The fact that we can do research in labs and already have that experience-you usually don't get that until graduate school."