From Jenny Blair & Pitt Med Magazine:
Origin stories: Undergrads witness new genes arising
Brandon Garcia, a student at Florida’s Rollins College, hadn’t had any particular plans to visit Pittsburgh until a professor told him about an unusual opportunity. The marine biology major wound up spending the summer of a lifetime at Pitt, advancing new discoveries about evolution.
Garcia and Pitt undergraduate Aaron Zhang, a pre-med, were the first students to benefit from a prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) granted to Anne-Ruxandra Carvunis in January 2022. The five-year grant enables the pioneering evolutionary biologist to loop gifted undergraduates into her research. Carvunis is an associate professor of computational and systems biology in Pitt’s School of Medicine. Earlier this year, she was one of the recipients of a Chancellor’s Distinguished Award, which recognizes exceptional Pitt faculty.
The students studied proto-genes—sequences of genetic material that arise from “dark matter” in the genome and encode simple proteins. Proto-genes may sometimes give birth to novel genes that let organisms adapt quickly to changing conditions. Of thousands of these mysterious sequences, very few are understood.
“I basically, selfishly, don’t want to be the only person interested in this question,” says Carvunis, with a laugh. “I want many young people to bring their bright minds and help me solve this.”