INBRE Enhances Research Opportunities in Rural Maine

 – Research and writing contributions from Pippa Hansen, Donor Communications Specialist at MDI Biological Laboratory

   Lydia Tilley (left) recently graduated from the University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI) with a medical technology/pre-med degree and has taken a Research Assistant position with the MDI Biological Laboratory. Her mentor was INBRE Investigator and assistant professor Larry Feinstein, Ph.D. (right). UMPI became a partner institution with Maine INBRE in 2019.

As a freshman on a Pre-Med track at the University of Maine in Presque Isle (UMPI) in 2016, Lydia Tilley knew that undergraduate science research was something she needed to focus on to be successful. Fortunately, UMPI was then an ‘outreach institution’ in the INBRE network that received support to allow biology students to attend a 1-week, hands-on research course at the MDI Biological Laboratory. As an undergraduate Tilley participated in this and a second ‘short’ course, and then received a coveted 10-week INBRE summer undergraduate research fellowship to work with a faculty mentor on the MDI Biological Laboratory campus.

“INBRE has been hugely impactful and beneficial to me – it’s given me the opportunity to participate in lab research experiences that I wouldn’t have had at UMPI alone,” Tilley says. “It’s affordable, too. College is already so expensive, but INBRE makes these experiences accessible no matter your means.”

Opportunity alone is not enough to create the pathway to a science career. Enter the faculty mentor – in this case, UMPI assistant professor Larry Feinstein, Ph.D. Feinstein, who was awarded INBRE Investigator funding in 2019 for his research on antibiotic resistance in pathogenic bacteria, mentored Tilley throughout her undergraduate training at UMPI.  “He’s super invested in his students, in a really individualized way. Dr. Feinstein helped me to find great funding opportunities and more. I can say nothing but good things – and I’m still working on finalizing a paper with him.” says Tilley.

One of the funding opportunities that Tilley refers to is a fellowship she was awarded by the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) in 2017. Given to only 20 students across the U.S., it gave Tilley the opportunity to present her research findings at the ASM conference in Atlanta. “Her fellowship is yet another example of the extraordinary undergraduate research occurring on our campus and the outstanding opportunities being provided for students by our faculty,” said UMPI President Ray Rice. “We look forward to seeing the results of the research Lydia will help to conduct.”

Research in the Feinstein lab focuses on comparative functional genomics of antibiotic resistance (ABR). By sequencing the genomes of pathogenic bacteria, Feinstein is working to determine gene abundance and mechanisms responsible for transferring ABR genes between similar and different bacterial species. Originally using clinical isolates from the local hospital in Presque Isle, the Feinstein Lab now works with isolates from Bangor and other area hospitals. By understanding the distribution of genes in different pathogens and the mechanisms by which genes are shared, Feinstein hopes for the development of new drug therapies for treating ABR bacterial infections. His research also focuses on genomic changes in bacterial strains over time, as well geographic differences – some genes have world-wide distribution, but others are distinct but disparate (such as one that is common in China but has only been found in one location in the U.S. to date).   

Feinstein says that while being a mentor is an important role, he benefits too. “Students are incredibly helpful in moving my research forward,” he says. “I’ve had four students involved in INBRE over the last year. The opportunities give them a chance to stretch themselves a bit, and I get a higher skillset in my lab. It’s a wonderful partnership.”

Feinstein explains that he offers every opportunity he can to involve students in lab research. Immersive lab work is often reserved for graduate students at larger institutions, but at a smaller institution like UMPI, undergraduates get to experience specialized, real-world work which may give them a competitive edge in applying to grad school or in the job market.

Case in point: Lydia Tilley. She grew up in Newburgh, Maine and graduated from UMPI in May with a Bio Pre-Med major and a minor in Chemistry. Her tenacity and drive led her to land a highly competitive Research Assistant position in the Lab of newly appointed assistant professor and COBRE Project leader Prayag Murawala at the MDI Biological Laboratory, where she started work in June.

UMPI became a full partner in the INBRE network in May 2019, providing funding for research projects like Feinstein’s and additional programs intended to expand UMPI’s biomedical research capacity.