EMU biology professor receives NIH grant to study what yeast cells can tell us about DNA mutations in tumors

EMU students, called "labbies," flourish under the guidance of Anne Casper as they help conduct important research in her lab

YPSILANTI – Anne Casper, a professor of biology at Eastern Michigan University, has been chosen to receive a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study genomic instability in yeast cells in order to help understand how genetic changes can develop in certain tumor cells.

It is the second NIH grant Casper has received for such research. She will receive nearly $332,000 from NIH to support the total project costs of $356,000. This grant brings Casper’s total NIH support for her research to $763,500.

Casper’s lab, located on the fourth floor of the new EMU Science Complex, uses yeast cells as a model organism to study the mechanisms that can lead to mutations and chromosome rearrangements in tumor cells. Through such work, Casper and students working in the lab seek to further understand tumor initiation and prognosis.


Professor Anne Casper discusses the yeast cells growing on a petri dish she's holding with EMU students, from left, Catherine Kaminski, Quinn Ellison, Thomas Coates and Alicia Layer.

Abnormal cell growth in cancer cells can result from genetic changes such as amplifications, deletions and mutations that alter gene function.

Such genetic changes can be stimulated by stress during replication, the process of copying a cell’s DNA. Replication stress, in which the copying process is slowed or stalled, causes breaks at particular cell hot spots known as “fragile sites,” and many tumors have genetic changes at fragile sites.

Under the grant, Casper’s lab will use the yeast model system to investigate the repair processes at fragile sites, and to test hypotheses about why fragile sites are unstable during replication stress. The results of such studies will help in understanding how and why genetic changes arise in tumor cells.

“I’m so excited about this NIH funding, because it lets me train a large, vibrant group of students in cutting-edge genetics research,” said Casper.  “My labbies and I are looking forward to new things we’ll learn as we pursue the aims of this grant.”

Caryn Charter, director of the EMU Office of Research Development, said, “This is an outstanding achievement, especially in light of the increasingly competitive environment at the NIH. This is extremely meaningful research, and we are excited for Anne and the students in her lab, who can share in these efforts.

“Anne, like so many of the faculty members at EMU, does a marvelous job providing a meaningful research experience to graduate and undergraduate students, often resulting in co-authored papers and presentations.”

Casper exudes enthusiasm over her research, her classroom experiences at EMU and the connection she enjoys with her research students, a combination of 15 undergraduates and five masters students she calls “labbies.”

To be a “labbie” can mean sharing deeply in the work Casper oversees, along with excellent experience for aspiring teachers, researchers and medical professionals. Casper’s lab website, http://people.emich.edu/acasper2/ lists current and former labbies who’ve gone on to further academic success.

Current labbies praise Casper as an accomplished and fun teacher.

“Dr. Casper has been an incredible mentor,” says Quinn Elllison, a graduate student in molecular and cellular biology. “I essentially started the M.S. program here with very little sense of direction, but Dr. Casper is very good at making students inexperienced in scientific research feel relaxed, increasing their confidence in the lab while pushing them to do things like obtaining their own funding through scholarships and awards and to present at national conferences. As an educator and advisor, she somehow maintains that balance between being encouraging and offering constructive criticism.”

Catherine Kaminski, a senior biology major, says the biggest benefit of being a labbie is the hands-on experience. “I have such an upper hand in a lot of my classes because I have been able to get more practice with laboratory techniques and biology concepts one-on-one with a professor, instead of just in the time limits of class,” she says.

Shahana Ahmed, a sophomore majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry, cites the research experience she’s already gained. “Working with Dr. Casper fuels my passion to continue research, while moving forward to graduate school," she said.

Casper graduated with a bachelor’s in biology at the University of Nebraska in 1999, and then earned her master’s and Ph.D. at the University of Michigan.

She says she loves working at Eastern Michigan, which offers the opportunity to blend teaching and connecting with students with her research. 

“It’s exactly the kind of job I wanted,” Casper says. “I really wanted teaching to be a major part of my work, and we have a wonderful faculty in the biology department.”

Casper’s timing in arriving at Eastern was ideal, as she began her research at the University as the $90 million Science Complex, the largest building project in Eastern’s history, opened in winter of 2011.

“My lab is state of the art,” Casper says. “All of the instrumentation and support we need for molecular research is shared among faculty in a single floor of the Science Complex.  It’s an incredible facility.”


January 29, 2014

Written by:
Geoff Larcom

Geoff Larcom