Investigating the role of RAI1 in childhood onset obesity
Investigating the role of RAI1 in childhood onset obesity

The project involves looking at variance in the RAI1, or retinoic acid induced 1, gene, which is associated with a disorder called Smith-Magenis syndrome. Smith-Magenis syndrome is an all-encompassing neurodevelopmental disorder in which patients display intellectual disability, behavioral problems, sleep disturbances and obesity. The idea is that the gene may be contributing to the obesity.

Student researcher: Royena Tanaz (B.S. ’12/H&S)

Faculty mentor: Sarah Elsea, Ph.D., associate professor, VCU Department of Pediatrics and VCU Department of Human and Molecular Genetics

Tanaz: I wanted to get involved with research before I went to medical school because I want to have a really strong background in this field. I want to develop my research further and I’ve already been given the opportunity to do so. I applied to the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and I was in Dr. Elsea’s lab all summer. I get to present my research next spring at the poster symposium.

Being involved in research, now I want to do a master’s degree. Dr. Elsea says there’s the possibility if I want to stay in the lab I could apply for a master’s at VCU and just continue to do what I’m doing. That would be perfect. I’m already settled into my little niche and I could just continue and have my master’s and I could build a stronger relationship with the VCU School of Medicine.

Elsea: Undergraduate research is a great opportunity. It’s great for students to get an idea of what opportunities are out there, to see what graduate school might be like and whether or not this is a career that they might like to consider pursuing.

I’ve had about 40 undergraduates work here in my lab over the years. In fact, when we identified the RAI1 gene as the gene that caused Smith-Magenis disorder, it was actually an undergraduate who identified it. So the potential is great for students to really contribute to scientific discovery. And I always try to make sure that students understand that what we’re doing translates back to families and to the individuals who are affected by these disorders.

The students who have stayed in the lab, virtually all of them are in medical school or graduate school. So I think that bodes well. Everything that we do in my lab is geared toward data for grants and publications. Anybody who contributes receives authorship. Not very many undergrads have that experience.