Faculty and Alumni Join Nobel Prize Winner on Groundbreaking Research Publication
Four Spartans who worked in SJSU Biological Sciences Professor Katherine Wilkinson’s lab as undergraduate researchers are now published in Science Magazine article reflecting new discoveries in neuroscience. Photo of the 2019 lab cohort, which includes contributors Alexandra Salazar, Nikola Klier, Sarah Chu and Sameer Masri, courtesy of Katherine Wilkinson.
It’s not everyday that undergraduates contribute pioneering research in Science Magazine — and even more rare to produce work alongside Nobel Prize recipients. Earlier this month, work by four San José State University alumni scientists was included in a groundbreaking article co-authored by San José State Professor of Biological Sciences Katherine Wilkinson and Ardem Patapoutian, neuroscience professor at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, and winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
“This was a very interesting study to work on and included contributions from four different laboratories,” said Wilkinson. “It is always exciting to see undergraduates contributing to studies like this and really highlights the importance of continued investment in research experiences for undergraduates at places like SJSU. Two of the contributing students are now in PhD programs, one is working at Genentech and one is working in project management.”
The study, “Excessive mechanotransduction in sensory neurons causes joint contractures,” revealed that the gene mutation in sensory neurons that leads to the rare neurological disease Distal Arthrogryposis can be found in a single ion channel in muscle neurons. Two of the labs involved in the study discovered that two interventions could potentially lessen symptoms if introduced early enough. This could be a game-changer for people living with the disease, assuming that clinical trials corroborate the study’s findings.
The study is especially life-changing for Nikola Klier, ’20 Biological Science, ’22 MS Bioinformatics, because it offered him the opportunity to develop a unique code to better analyze data. Now a PhD student at UC Santa Barbara, Klier joined the Wilkinson lab as a freshman in 2016 and wasted no time in experimenting with software to solve scientific problems.
“Seeing the product of my research out there and being accessed by other people is an amazing feeling,” said Klier. “This is my second publication with the Wilkinson lab and with both publications, it’s been amazing to realize that I’ve contributed to the overall body of scientific knowledge. I’ve found something new about the way that biology works. And that’s just an amazing feeling.”
Alexandra Salazar, ’20 Biological Science, also played an important role in the study. Like Klier, she dedicated much of her undergraduate career to the Wilkinson lab, where she and classmate Sarah Chu, ’20 Biological Science, developed a technique for recording neural activity in very young animals. Her work with Patapoutian led to a summer collaboration and opened doors for her to pursue further research as a PhD student at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla.
“Joining the Wilkinson lab helped me find purpose at school,” Salazar said. “I was able to apply what I had been learning in classes to what I was seeing right in front of me in the lab. Being surrounded by peers like Sarah, Nikola and Sameer [Masri, ’19 Psychology], who were also in my classes, allowed me to succeed and ultimately graduate.”
During her time at the Wilkinson lab, Salazar also received a paid fellowship through the National Institute of Health’s Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement (RISE) program. She emphasized how important it is for supporting institutions like the NIH to fund the SJSU RISE program, “so that undergraduates can have the means to conduct research and a chance to pursue a PhD like I did.”
Chu and Masri are also listed as co-authors on the Science publication for their contributions to data collection and analysis. Together with Salazar and Klier, they represent a growing number of undergraduate students gaining hands-on research experience under the leadership of faculty members like Wilkinson. When he was applying to college, Klier said that it was the College of Science’s focus on undergraduate research that impressed him the most.
“It’s really extraordinary the extent to which undergraduates are not just in the lab, but taking leadership roles, as well as taking on projects of their own, in the lab,” he added. “That is just an experience that is very difficult to get as an undergraduate.”