Payton Dupuis’ interest in biology research began where it does for many future scientists – seeing a relative struggling with an incurable disease. For Dupuis, that family member was his uncle, who was suffering from complications from diabetes. Dupuis, a senior at Montana State University, says diabetes is prevalent on the Flathead Reservation in Montana, where she grew up, and witnessing the impacts of the disease inspired her to pursue a career in Scientific Research. Since then, this passion has led him to travel the country to participate in various summer research programs in biomedical sciences.
More recently, she participated in the Bernard S. and Sophie G. Gould Biology Summer Research Program at MIT (BSG-MSRP-Bio). The program, offered by the departments of Biology and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, is designed to encourage students from underrepresented groups to attend graduate school and pursue careers in scientific research. More than 85% of participants went on to enroll in top graduate programs, with many returning to MIT, just as Dupuis envisions.
Her journey, from witnessing the effects of her uncle’s diabetes to considering graduate school at MIT, was only made possible by Dupuis’ love of science and his ability to “find positive,” as she puts it, in every experience.
As a high school student, Dupuis took her first trip to the Northeast, attending Carnegie Mellon University’s Summer Academy of Mathematics and Science. For Dupuis, who had not even studied calculus yet, the experience was a welcome challenge. “It definitely made me work hard,” she laughs, comparing herself to the other participants in the program. “But I proved to myself, to no one else, that I belonged in this program.”
Besides being a confidence booster, the Carnegie Mellon program also gave Dupuis his first taste of scientific research while working in a biomedical laboratory on tissue regeneration. She was excited about the possibilities of growing new organs – such as the insulin-producing pancreas that could help regulate her uncle’s diabetes – outside of the body. Dupuis was officially addicted to biology.
His experience that summer encouraged Dupuis to specialize in chemical engineering, seeing it as a good path to biomedical research. Unfortunately, the chemical engineering program at Montana State was not what she expected, focusing less on the human body and more on the petroleum industry. In this context, his ability to see a silver lining served Dupuis well.
“It wasn’t really what I wanted, but it was still interesting because there were ways to apply it to the body,” she explains. “Like fluid mechanics – instead of water flowing through a pipe, I was thinking about blood flowing through veins.”
Dupuis adds that the chemical engineering program also gave her problem-solving skills that were invaluable as she took on biology-focused summer programs to help hone her interests. One summer, she worked in the Montana State Department of Chemistry, gaining hands-on experience in a wet lab. “I didn’t really know the chemistry behind what I was doing,” she admits, “but I fell in love with it.” Another summer, she participated in the Tufts Building Diversity in Biomedical Sciences program, exploring the genetic side of research in a project on bone development in mice.
In 2020, a local tribal college mentor put Dupuis in touch with Keith Henry, associate professor of biomedical sciences at the University of North Dakota. With Henry, Dupuis searched for new binding sites for the neurotransmitter serotonin that could help minimize the side effects associated with long-term use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the most common class of antidepressants. more common. That summer was Dupuis’ first exposure to brain research and his first experience modeling biological processes with computers. She loved it. In fact, upon returning to the state of Montana, Dupuis enrolled as a computer science minor.
Because of the minor, Dupuis needed an extra year to graduate, leaving him one more summer for a research program. His older sister had already participated in the general MSRP program at MIT, so it was obvious for Dupuis to apply for the biology-specific program.
This summer, Dupuis was placed in the lab of Troy Littleton, Menicon Professor of Neuroscience at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. “I definitely fell in love with the lab,” she says. With Littleton, Dupuis carried out a project on complexine, a protein that can both inhibit and facilitate the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin. It is also essential for the fusion of synaptic vesicles, the parts of neurons that store and release neurotransmitters.
A number of human neurological diseases have been linked to complexine deficiency, although Dupuis says scientists are still figuring out what the protein does and how it works.
To that end, Dupuis focused this summer on fruit flies, which have two different types of complexin — humans, by comparison, have four. Using gene editing, she designed an experiment comparing fruit flies with varying amounts of different subtypes of the protein. There was the positive control group, which was not affected; the negative control group which had no complexine; and two experimental groups, each with one of the subtypes removed. Using fluorescent staining, Dupuis compared how neurons lit up in each group of flies, shedding light on how changing the amount of complexine altered how the flies released neurotransmitters and formed new ones. synaptic connections.
Having touched on so many different areas of biological research through summer programs, Dupuis says researching neural activity in fruit flies this summer was the perfect intellectual fit and a formative experience in as a researcher.
“I’ve definitely learned to take an experience and make it my own and figure out what works best for me, but still produces the results we need,” she says.
As for what’s next, Dupuis says her experience at MIT convinced her to pursue graduate studies in brain science. “Boston is really where I want to be and eventually work, with all the biotech and biopharmaceutical companies around,” she says. One of the benefits of the MSRP-Bio program is the professional development opportunities. Although Dupuis has always been interested in the industry, she says she enjoyed attending career panels this summer that demystified what this career path really looks like and what it takes to get there.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the program for Dupuis, however, was the confidence it gave her as she continues to navigate the world of biomedical research. She intends to bring this back with her to the state of Montana to encourage her classmates to seek out similar summer opportunities.
“I know there are so many people who would make great researchers and love science, but they just don’t know about it or think they can get it,” she says. “All I would say is you just have to apply. You just have to put yourself forward. »