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Loyola students examine how maternal eating habits impact their offspring's health

Loyola students examine how maternal eating habits impact their offspring

Sophomore Samir El Idrissi spent this summer doing research in Biology Chair James Cheverud's laboratory in the Quinlan Life Sciences Center. El Idrissi along with other student research assistants examined how a mother’s diet can influence her children’s health.

By Amanda Friedlander

Fluorescent lights and the muted hum of music from a portable radio fill this Biology laboratory on Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus. Within the white-walled room, are eight undergraduate students who are spending their summer studying the maternal effects of genetic conditions on offspring. More or less, does your mother’s eating habits make you prone to genetic diseases, illnesses, or conditions?

A group of students led by James Cheverud, PhD, chair of the Department of Biology, is trying to determine whether offspring growth and adult metabolic traits are affected by a mother’s diet, as well as other environmental factors. These studies, which began in the fall, will help determine whether the way offspring turn out is solely dependent on their mother, or if it is a product of their genetic makeup as well as their environment. 

While some may be intimidated by the physically demanding tasks taking place in the basement of the Quinlan Life Sciences Center, but research assistant Samir El Idrissi couldn’t be more excited.

“It’s a very supportive environment,” El Idrissi, who is a sophomore majoring in biology, said. “Once you get it down, it’s as easy as breathing. And it’s fun because you see these things in your textbooks but it’s nothing like the real thing.”

One of the youngest assistants in the lab, he has been preparing for an opportunity like this since childhood; he describes himself as “one of those dinosaur kids,” who knows all the names of every prehistoric creature from Apatosaurus to Zuniceratops. In high school, he created an ultraviolet germicidal radiation treatment that eliminated an entire population of bacteria using UV lights that he bought online. But, as soon as he came to Loyola, he was ready for a new project.

In the right place

Each research assistant in Cheverud’s lab was especially chosen for this research study. With so few spots for student research, Cheverud said prospects have to do their own research on faculty first to see if there are openings. Once students go through the interview process, faculty. determine whether the students are a good fit for the lab. And if chosen, students must then undergo ethics and safety training before they can even step foot in the lab. 

Junior Rachel Schneck says, sometimes it comes down to simply being in the right place at the right time.

“If you have connections, use them,” she said. “If you’re like me and you had no clue who to talk to, just start applying. Someone will want you.”

In addition to assisting with the experiments and recording data, students are also given the opportunity to work with post doctorates in other areas of the lab. Each week, several assistants bring in a study for discussion such as the effects of genetic variation on obesity in mice, and present it to a panel of fellow assistants, lab technicians, and professors.

Putting theory to practice 

This research team opportunity has helped the students like El Idrissi grow far beyond what they could have imagined; within only a few months of joining Cheverud’s team, El Idrissi was extracting DNA and replicating it for analysis, something he describes as difficult but satisfying at the same time. 

“It’s all a challenge at first. But once you get down to it and practice, it all becomes secondhand. Once that happens, you can move to the next thing until you reach a higher level of understanding,” he said. 

But the learning never really ends. The student research team will work on this experiment for several more months before they’ve gathered enough data to draw any conclusions. In return for their hard work, Cheverud allows students to use the labs to do their own research projects independently. El Idrissi hopes to publish something of his own using the knowledge and experience he gained from this study. 

And if students are lucky enough to land a spot in one of Cheverud’s labs, El Idrissi has some advice: “Work hard and make sure you put a lot of effort into it. Everything you put in you’ll gain equally, if not more, back in life experience.”