Undergraduate Researcher Tackles Disorder with Cutting-Edge Tool

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Undergraduate Researcher Tackles Disorder with Cutting-Edge Tool

by 

Sara Cody
Undergraduate Madison Darmofal'19, working with her advisor Tobias Kaiser, a graduate student in Guoping Feng's lab, uses CRISPR-Cas9 to study William's Syndrome

CRISPR-Cas9, a genome-editing technology, is one of hottest new research techniques in science. For Madison Darmofal’19, it’s a tool she gets to work with every day as an undergraduate researcher.

“Working so closely with CRISPR, sometimes you have to take a step back to remember that you are not only working with a research tool, you are working with something that has this incredible potential to really make a difference with some of our toughest problems,” says Darmofal. “But access to new and exciting technology is exactly why I chose to come to MIT, particularly when it comes to the abundance of undergraduate research opportunities, where you get to work with these new techniques.”

Darmofal, a biological engineering major, works in Prof. Guoping Feng’s lab, which she was connected to through MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). Feng, an investigator in the MIBR, focuses his research on the development and function of synapses, and their disruption in brain disorders. UROP encourages multidisciplinary research at MIT and allows undergraduate students like Darmofal to earn laboratory experience in a variety of fields, an important asset for anyone majoring in science or engineering.

In addition to assisting with big laboratory projects, Feng’s lab also encourages undergraduate researchers to pursue their own ideas and projects under the guidance of graduate students or postdoctoral fellows. Working in tandem with her advisor, Tobias Kaiser, a graduate student in the Feng lab, Darmofal develops therapeutic approaches for William’s syndrome, a genetic disorder. According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, William’s syndrome affects 1 out of every 10,000-20,000 births in the US, and causes physical defects, learning disabilities, and abnormal social tendencies.

“Using CRISPR-Cas9, we access the genome to induce expression of a gene that is partially deleted in the disease,” says Darmofal. “Using a Williams syndrome-like model, we use the remaining copy to induce expression to make up for the missing copy, causing the genes to express in a phenotypically normal way. Ultimately, the end goal is the cure.”

For Darmofal, the practical experience she gets in the lab is an important component of her education, and the skills she learns on the bench translate well to her other courses, whether it’s engineering problem sets, coding, or biology. Ultimately, her goal is to go to graduate school and her experience working in Feng’s lab has further solidified her commitment.

“Working in a lab has completely changed my perception about academic research because it’s so inspiring to see people care so much about what they’re researching and how it will make an impact on the world,” says Darmofal. “For me, making a contribution to a project that could help people is very meaningful because even just like a small step forward in the process feels huge because it’s my own.” 

To learn more about undergraduate research opportunities at MIT, visit uaap.mit.edu/research-exploration/urop.