Whether it’s on the tennis court or in the lab, Kristyn Conrad keeps a firm grip on her plans for the future. One way she maintains her goal-oriented mindset is in the lab doing cancer research.
“This type of work makes me feel amazing. I don’t know how else to describe it, to be honest; it’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” Conrad said. “The main reason I got into research was to do cancer work. Throughout the years, I’ve always wanted to do something that could benefit a lot of people.”
Conrad — a Ph.D. student and Life Sciences Fellow from Mount Vernon, Ohio — studies biochemistry while she works in the Michael Petris lab at Bond LSC. She studies cell culture in many different cell lines including melanoma, a type of skin cancer. Conrad chose the University of Missouri after completing her undergraduate degree at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio.
“When I did my visit here, I just fell in love with all of the people. They are all so sweet and I just loved everything about Missouri,” Conrad said.
Since moving to Missouri, Conrad has found a stable balance between continuing her academic accomplishments and maintaining a life outside of her lab work.
“I have been able to put my focal point on more things here, and it’s been amazing to just be able to focus on the work I am doing in the lab and take time to do things for myself. Taking the time to go to church has really helped with that time management as well,” she said.
As part of the balancing act Conrad maintains, she is a member of the Mizzou Club Tennis Team. She finds her mentality on the court relates to her work at Bond LSC on a fundamental level by getting her mind in the right spot before a match or an experiment.
“I always try my best, so no matter what I’m going to be motivated on the court and in the lab. I try to be a very positive person in both,” Conrad said. “I don’t want to get down on myself if I do something wrong in the lab or if I do something wrong on the court, I just try to think ‘next time’ and that I can do this.”
That positivity trickles into Conrad’s reasons behind choosing cancer research in the first place. From as young as Conrad can remember, she has donated her hair or volunteered at fundraisers for the American Cancer Society or Be The Change, where she gathered books for those in poverty-stricken communities.
“After a rigorous and laborious four-month stint of accumulating and packing up boxes of books, I had collected over three thousand books. This project resulted in an understanding of how one person can make a lifelong difference,” Conrad said.
Conrad finds these opportunities to be ones that enact the change she wants to see in the world. Her career aspirations originated in high school when she first discovered her knack for science.
“I started to like science and I just realized that this is what my passion is, and this is what God has put me on the Earth to do,” she said.
In the lab, Conrad analyzes cancer cell cultures. She spends most of her time under the cell culture hood — which maintains a sterile environment to perform experiments in — undergoing processes like immunofluorescence.
For this test, Conrad first grows bacteria in the lab and allows the plasmids to replicate independently. These plasmids are produced from combining two or more genes in order to understand more information about the mutation that causes Menke’s disease. Then, she begins placing cells on a coverslip, which helps prevent contamination, and injects them with the plasmids. A few days after the injection, the cells are ready to experience immunofluorescence, where they are given an antibody treatment and washed to eliminate any unbound antibodies. The coverslips are then put on a slide where an image of the sample is taken through a fluorescence microscope. This helps researchers like Conrad identify where the target protein is being distributed in a group of cells, so that they can understand certain diseases more fully, such as Menkes disease — a copper deficiency condition brought on by a faulty copper transporter protein, ATP7A.
Copper is a vital mineral in the process of synthesizing connective tissues, blood vessels, and creating ATP, the energy molecule for cells. Conrad uses what she learns in the lab about copper transporters — needed to maintain appropriate levels of copper — and applies it to one of the projects to study Menkes disease.
In addition to her work with Menkes disease, Conrad also performs tests with bathocuproinedisulfonic acid (BCS), which has copper binding capabilities, and uses this information to determine the rate at which cancer cell lines can survive depending on their sensitivity to copper. On top of that, she works with a chemoresistance protein and studies the localization and function under the influence of copper and BCS.
She thinks of her work with copper and cancer cell lines to be more of an opportunity, rather than just another task to tick off.
“I really enjoy cell culture, so it doesn’t feel like a duty,” Conrad said. “It’s exciting to get that result, and, even if it’s not a great one, I still get something and learn, so I am able to go back and maybe reassess everything.”
One way Conrad stays grounded in her work is by staying rooted in her faith.
“I go to bible study and that just gets me through the week, being close with those people and connecting in that way,” Conrad said.
Conrad transfers this mindset of positivity and connection between the lab and her home life. She plans to continue her academic career and research by pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship.
Even when she completes her Ph.D. degree, she doesn’t plan to stop her work with cancer cells any time soon.
“Every day I feel like I’m getting one step closer to helping millions of people, so that’s amazing for anybody,” Conrad said.