Tortoises, genetics, and core facilities

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Dr. Taylor Edwards discusses how the power of DNA facilitates cross-campus collaborations at the University of Arizona Genetics Core.
Dr. Brittany Uhlorn, BIO5 Institute

Transdisciplinary research unites researchers from different backgrounds to integrate and move beyond discipline-specific approaches to address today’s grand bioscience and biomedical challenges. Dr. Taylor Edwards, clinical manager and development scientist at the University of Arizona Genetics Core, shares how the UAGC core facility brings together researchers and samples from across the university to tackle projects spanning COVID-19, environmental science, and more. Though the projects vary, Edwards says that a common theme of DNA unites them. 

You’ve had a lot of roles, including herpetologist, geneticist, lab manager, conservationist, biologist, educator, and artist. What drew you to your current career and sparked your interest in transdisciplinary work? 

Many years ago, when I started, there was no such thing as transdisciplinary science. Now, it's a goal to try to achieve. As I've worked over the years, I realized that the more people I have on my team with different perspectives and different ideas, the better we can do applied science and get it to more people. I have much more power and success through collaboration.

My career first started working with in wildlife biology. The first thing that brought me into it was volunteering at a zoo in high school and wanting to save endangered species through captive breeding programs. I got my degree in zoology, and my first job outside of my undergraduate was actually at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, where I worked in the Mexican Wolf reintroduction program. That's what drew me into field biology. 

Then, I started having questions that I couldn't answer by being out in the field with animals. That's when I first started working with genetics and came back to the U of A for my master's program. There was no genetics program or natural resources department at that time, but I stumbled upon what is now the UAGC where I could actually learn these techniques and apply them to my own work as a master's student.

UAGC is what we call a core service. What does a core service like UAGC mean for our university and state?

Core facilities are a group that's able to help facilitate the research that goes on both within the U of A and outside of that. We run the expensive instruments that do DNA sequencing and genome sequencing, and we have the expertise and technicians that can help researchers with those kinds of problems. We get people coming to us who are experts in their field, and they may want to add a genetic component to their research, but maybe they haven't worked with genetics directly before, or maybe they don't know which is the right platform in order to do the research study – we’re able to help them. 

It's not necessary for every lab to have a $500,000 instrument to do this kind of stuff, whereas a core facility, we can have a specialist running that instrument for a hundred different labs, essentially generating data all the time that helps fuel the research. 

How have you seen sequencing technology evolve over the years, and how has that enabled you all to be intimately involved with the COVID-19 research efforts and the larger university pandemic response?

Biotechnology is such a fast-moving technology. That's one of the things that's kept me interested so long. The new sets of tools allow me to ask new questions that I never even thought were possible. 

Around 2000 when I entered my master's program, they announced the first draft of the human genome that took 10 years to assemble. I was just looking at simple molecular markers in tortoises for the first time - never in my life did I think we'd have tortoise genomes, but now I'm an author on some tortoise genomes as well. The technology has changed that far in those number of years.

As that, as that technology changed, I found myself wanting to keep up with it because there was a whole new world of things to answer. I ended up doing my doctorate program while an employee of UAGC because I was continuing to do my own research on tortoises. I realized I needed to apply this new technology to my own research, but I also needed to learn the best ways to do it.

One of the aspects about a core facility that’s also kept me going is the collaboration. You’re not just working on what you’re interested in, but you're working with researchers from health sciences, life sciences, public health, and everywhere in between that come to ask questions that we can help facilitate. Over the course of a day, I might be working with a student who wants to do environmental sampling to look at fish DNA in a freshwater lake. Then the next thing I'm doing is developing a clinical test to monitor bone marrow engraftment. 

It's pretty amazing, but it's all DNA. It's all using the same basis for understanding, and then applying it to lots and lots of different questions.

UAGC was awarded the 2021 University of Arizona Team Award for Excellence, specifically in your engagement with the COVID-19 testing team. Talk more about how your team pivoted to work with the pandemic.

It truly took a team to do this. My part in it revolves around by role as the clinical lab manager at the UAGC. We do clinical testing, which means we generate molecular DNA results that apply directly to patients so that physicians can use that information in the treatment or diagnosis. We were already able to do these kinds of things, so when the pandemic started early in 2020, our laboratory director Ryan Sprissler and I put together a letter to our administration saying, “We're not sure what's going to happen with the pandemic, but here are the things that we can do. Here are our capabilities.” 

By the end of March, we were in a real emergency, so that's when we first started to develop our real-time PCR assay for COVID diagnosis. Initially, it was an odd time - our biggest challenge was getting positive samples because it was new. We were working with other facilities and collaborating with other institutions in order to get those samples so that we could validate our own laboratory developed test for the COVID testing. That then led to also doing antibody testing for the lab. 

We have amazing expertise here at the University of Arizona to be able to work with immunologists who are specialists in this kind of thing. Using the ELISA assay they developed, we were able to also turn that into a clinical test and continue doing antibody testing for the whole state of Arizona. I was fortunate because I got to work with some of my favorite friends and colleagues at U of A. We already had the experience and instrumentation for doing large scale projects, but we each have our own specialties. 

Bringing together all our resources and infrastructure made me so proud of the University of Arizona. Everybody just stepped up and did their part - from the electronic systems that we do our orders, to the supply chain, to the knowledge from our scientists that are experts in this field working late into the nights and on weekends, trying to get these things developed. It was an exciting, amazing time, and it felt good knowing we were working towards something that was positive and would get us through this challenging time.

Talk a little bit about how you include the educational piece of the BIO5 mission in your work.

UACG has always been very forward with mentoring and having students in the lab, I think because a lot of us, including myself, have had those experiences of being a student who's had doors open for them because of mentorship. It's been harder as I've gotten more advanced in my position because I'm less hands on with the students, but it's always a pleasure when I get to do that. 

Because we're a production facility, it's a little bit different experience for some of the students here, but it does open up doors that they probably didn't expect what happened. We've had so many students through the years - we have a whole poster board with all their pictures. It's fun to keep in touch with them and see what they're doing now, where they've moved, and how their career paths changed as a result of working with us.

UAGC and your work are great examples of the intersection of science and business. How do the two go hand in hand?

In doing the sort of applied research that we do, a business model is good because it keeps you efficient and on target in a very defined sort of way. For my personality and my goals, it's sort of fit right in with the way a core facility operates as well as making sure that the work I do as an individual gets applied and manifests into something real that that can be put out into the world.