Indiana State University Newsroom

Life extraction: ISUcceed/SURE students research deer DNA

July 16, 2013

Steven Farrar started the stopwatch and began his wait.

"Five minutes takes a long time while you're waiting," said the senior from Detroit.

After his wait? He would separate white tail deer DNA from resin.

Collaboration between Indiana State University's Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program and Charles E. Brown African American Cultural Center's ISUcceed program allowed the accounting major to get hands-on experience in a biology lab during the summer.

"Math is my first love but science is actually my second passion," he said. "In college, everything mostly is geared toward my major now that I'm going into my senior year...Being able to actually get back in the lab and do these things day in and day out is really cool and interesting."

With ISUcceed in its third year of efforts to help retain students, Stephanie Jefferson, director of the cultural center, said university leaders suggested that some of the students participate in the SURE program, in which students work alongside science professors in the lab for the summer.

"The goal of ISUcceed and the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience is to introduce students to research, to learn what it's like to be part of a research team in a lab and also to prepare them for graduate school," she said. "They really weren't sure about the work that they would be doing and they didn't know if they would be able to handle it. What they found is that the faculty are ready to teach them and show them how to do the different techniques in the lab, to extract DNA, to explain to them what they are looking at in the microscope."

After a recruitment, application and interview process, Farrar landed a slot to work in Rusty Gonser's lab, extracting and exploring deer DNA. Gonser, associate professor of biology and director of the university's Center for Genomic Advocacy, said the collaborative nature of the project provides chances for students.

"It's letting them explore and find out that research, no matter what your discipline, is still the same research. It's still the same method. There are similarities for those same processing skills but yet they're learning new techniques that they learn about or see on television," he said. "It gives them an opportunity to explore and try new things that they never thought they would be doing."

That doing in Gonser's lab involves extracting the design for life.

"The DNA of any organism is the blueprint that tells you how that organism was built," Gonser said. "With all the technology in genomics now, we're sequencing genomes and trying to compare how different species are built, when different genes are turned on and off and how they are expressed to make you look as the individual you are today."

Roya Ball didn't imagine herself standing in a lab after her freshman year conducting DNA research.

"I never thought I would be extracting DNA so it's pretty cool to me," said the biology major from Terre Haute. "I thought it was going to be completely different and so coming in and seeing what you actually have to do is like, ‘Oh, that's not so crazy after all.'"

On a recent day in the lab, Roya cut thin slices from a deer's heart to use in finding out its DNA, the building blocks of its life. Gonser researches changes in the DNA of white tail deer harvest from a naval air base in southern Maryland.

"One thing about white tail deer is everyone thinks of them as a pest species," Gonser said.

But it's a success story of the rebound of a decimated species. When European settlers arrived, more than 12 million deer nibbled their ways across North American. That number fell to between 100,000 and 500,000 by 1900 and the white tail deer was considered extinct in many states. With the launch of conservation efforts to save the deer, it has multiplied to 26.5 million.

"Here is an opportunity to study genetics of a population that went through what we call a bottleneck - where it's had a severe reduction in the population numbers, which is when you go from 12 million to about 500,000 individuals. That's a lot of individuals lost and reduces the genetic variability of the population," Gonser said.

Further at the naval base, each year the deer population goes through a narrowing during hunting season, which it makes it valuable for investigating how much variation exists in the genome since the deer population came from a small herd moved to the base in the 1960s. Yearly harvesting of the deer also creates a repeated bottleneck of the herd.

"By examining deer DNA year by year, students can track genetic variations of a deer harvest from year to year," Gonser said. "We can start looking at these processes that we can't study in humans because the ethical reasons or some of the endangered species because they've gotten so low and they haven't recovered so much. But now we can see what could happen if our conservation efforts in other species allow that."

Ball knows that this summer experience will help her in the future as she pursues her dream of becoming a veterinarian.

"I don't think many people can say they have worked with deer DNA or any type of DNA," she said. "So it's definitely a really good experience."

Farrar agrees.

"The hands-on experience is definitely the best way for me to learn," he said.

In addition to the research in the lab and working on a team, the students also discussed their research during Friday sessions attended by of all SURE program members. They also will present their research during the Indiana Black Expo in Indianapolis on July 19-20.

Both students think it's important to get minorities into the sciences.

"I know coming to college as a minority, often we look at business and then we look for other things even outside of college - entertainment and sports," Farrar said. "Not a lot of us are getting into the science fields, the math-related fields. Just to be able to have the exposure to it, and to have the opportunity to even apply for the internship and just find out about it, I think that is really amazing and excellent on their behalf to get that out to us."

Ball sees another side.

"It inspires other people that want to get into a science field," she said. "It's important because it helps people succeed and opens doors for them."

Photos: Farrar works to isolate white tail deer DNA. ISU Photo/Sam Barnes Ball prepares a deer organ to extract its DNA. ISU Photo/Sam Barnes Ball and Steven Farrar participated in a collaboration between ISUcceed and the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience by conducting genomic research. ISU Photo/Sam Barnes

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or


Story Highlights

Collaboration between Indiana State University’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program and Charles E. Brown African American Cultural Center’s ISUcceed program allowed two students to get hands-on experience in a biology lab.

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