Northwestern professor awarded college's Endowed Research Fellowship

Dr. Sara Tolsma and student working with DNA sequencerNorthwestern College is awarding its annual $10,000 Endowed Research Fellowship for 2019 to Dr. Sara Sybesma Tolsma, professor of biology.

The Endowed Research Fellowship funds substantive summer research that contributes meaningfully to the faculty member’s discipline. The award is provided through the generosity of an anonymous donor and may be used for stipend, travel, equipment, books, supplies and student assistants.

Tolsma will use her fellowship to learn and bring back to Northwestern a technique called RNA sequencing (RNA-Seq), which measures differential gene expression. For two weeks she’ll work in the laboratory of Dr. Colleen Doherty, a professor in the molecular and structural biochemistry department of North Carolina State University.

Doherty’s lab researches gene expression in plants and regularly uses RNA-Seq. The technique is a next step in three research projects Tolsma is working on with colleagues and students.

In the first, Tolsma and Northwestern students are studying the ability of plant extracts to slow the growth of tumor cells. By using RNA-Seq technology, they can identify which genes alter expression levels after treatment with extracts—an important step in understanding the mechanisms by which antiproliferation of tumor cells occurs at the molecular level.

In another research project, Tolsma and biology department colleague Dr. Laurie Furlong are studying genetic drift in mayfly larvae. RNA-Seq will allow them to measure changes in the larvae’s genes in conditions related to the presence of fish and time of day.

Finally, Northwestern is a member of SEA-PHAGES, a program sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute designed to interest undergraduate students in scientific research. Through that program, students at NWC are discovering phages—or bacteria-infecting viruses—then sequencing and annotating their genomes. RNA-Seq will allow them to pursue a number of research questions involving those phages.

Tolsma is a Northwestern College graduate who earned a doctorate in microbiology, immunology and virology from Northwestern University. Her research efforts in cancer genetics and cell biology have been widely published, and she was the 2015 recipient of Northwestern’s Teaching Excellence Award.