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NOVA student contributes to American Journal of Physiology research

Dr. David Fernandez encouraged NOVA student Jetta Walker

Dr. David Fernandez encouraged NOVA student Jetta Walker (left) to work with Catholic University’s Dr. Pamela Tuma in her research of ethanol metabolism.

NOVA Professor Dr. David Fernandez and student Jetta Walker are on the cusp of being published in the American Journal of Physiology following their recent contributions to a research project led by Dr. Pamela Tuma and her graduate students at Catholic University.

Tuma, Fernandez’s former graduate mentor, studies liver cells and researches ethanol metabolism. Tuma trained under a biologist who trained under a Nobel Laureate. Jetta, along with Tuma’s Ph.D. and undergraduate students, researched protein trafficking and how it’s affected by ethanol. Fernandez explained that proteins are the functioning units of a cell and they do everything for a cell but can only do their jobs if they’re not in the right place at the right time. Tuma and her students’ research examined how that process is affected when influenced by ethanol.

After having Jetta in several of his classes, Fernandez said he had conversations with Walker about doing some research and she seemed genuinely interested in the opportunity.

“In teaching some courses at NOVA, I realized we have some phenomenal students. It was just a matter of making connections with resources and students to bring them together,” Fernandez said. “I’ve had Jetta for multiple classes and she’s typically at the very top of each class. It was a natural fit, especially after a few conversations because I realized that she really wanted to get her feet wet.

“We had conversations about how it really is doing actual research and she didn’t run and hide from those conversations. I knew I could leave her in the hands of my old boss and she would excel. I’ve done that previously with other students and we also do experiments here at NOVA-Alexandria.”

Jetta started working with Tuma in January 2015 until the end of October 2015. As they moved into 2016, they continued the experiments and prepared the proposal for submission to the American Journal of Physiology. As part of the process, Jetta learned to use a microscope to look at cells that were tagged with fluorescent dye to see what proteins they were studying.

By using fluorescent dye, they were able to determine the location of the proteins they were studying as they proceeded with the experiment. Jetta explained that this allowed them to compare ethanol-treated cells versus controlled cells not treated with ethanol and determine the effects on protein trafficking across different time points of growth hormone stimulation, a powerful chemical that causes liver cells to grow and divide.

“After the experiment, we found that ethanol slows down protein trafficking. It also affects cellular growth, metabolism and we even found that there were higher levels of cytokines, or increased inflammation,” Jetta said. “This kind of makes sense, that when you ingest alcohol your liver is trying to process and metabolize that and it increases inflammation, which can lead to different pathologies of the liver such as hepatic (liver) cancer or hepatic steatosis (fatty liver disease).”

Jetta and Fernandez explained that this could be a very long process. Those involved normally spend quite a long time in the lab to complete all experiments. Jetta said it’s important to do each experiment three times just to be able to explain that it is reproducible and to get enough information to do a statistical analysis that will show whether your data is significant or not.

After completing the experiments, Tuma and her team wrote up the manuscript and submitted it to American Journal of Physiology in January 2017. The academic journal responded by giving the team six months to conduct a number of different experiments before deciding on whether they’ll publish the work. Fernandez said this is a normal request when submitting to academic journals for publication.

Jetta followed her interest in science and enrolled as a part-time NOVA student after moving back to Northern Virginia with her husband. She previously received a bachelor’s degree in English with a plan to possibly go into library science. However, her interest in science kept pulling her toward something different.

“I always felt like something was still missing, so I decided once my husband and I moved back to this area and put down roots, I would go back to school,” Jetta said. “Chemistry was something I sort of feared but I enjoyed it. It helped build my confidence that, ‘Yes, I can do this.’ And I seemed to have a knack or a talent for it.”

Jetta has taken several science courses at NOVA, and they have only fueled her love for research. Her experience with Tuma’s team was an opportunity to really engulf herself in the world of research. By being a part of the process, Jetta said she has become aware of multiple career opportunities for her future.

“It has been a tremendously positive experience. It has taught me independent critical-thinking skills and confidence with decision making in the laboratory,” Jetta said. “It was such a supportive environment, and I was always able to ask someone. Sometimes experiments are timely, and you’re not able to pick up a phone to ask what to do, so I learned to really take on that responsibility. It’s inspiring to work alongside graduate students and to see how far along they’ve come in their academic careers to kind of give you an idea of career possibilities.”

Jetta plans to transfer to a four-year university where she hopes to choose a major that allows her to focus on her interests in anatomy, physiology or cellular biology. She said she’s taking it day-by-day and is open to a number of options in her field including becoming a medical laboratory specialist.

Northern Virginia Community College is the largest institution of higher education in the Commonwealth of Virginia and one of America's largest community colleges. NOVA enrolls more than 75,000 students at its six campuses in Alexandria, Annandale, Loudoun, Manassas, Springfield and Woodbridge, and through the Extended Learning Institute. For more information about NOVA and its programs or services, call 703-323-3000 or visit the College's Web site, www.nvcc.edu.

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