Eric Figueroa - Finland

My summers usually consisted of volunteering in a research lab near my home in Phoenix or Tucson - further developing my research skills. This past summer wasn’t much different... except for the fact that I was performing research in Finland! I had always wanted to visit Europe, but I hadn’t considered visiting, let alone doing research in, the Nordic country. When I was awarded a grant from the BRAVO! Program, I was ecstatic. I had only traveled outside of the United States to visit relatives in Mexico before, so my stay in Finland was my first true foreign experience and one that I will never forget.

I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Alexander Kastaniotis. One aspect of his lab focuses on the mitochondria and its fatty acid metabolism. My project consisted of investigating the mammalian protein, holocarboxylase synthetase ligase (Hlcs), and how it becomes localized in the mitochondria. Various proteins have shown to be dually localized within cells. Mitochondrial proteins that serve similar purposes in the mitochondria and cytosol are just one example of this phenomenon. The mechanisms by which a protein dually localizes within cells can vary.

The Kastaniotis Lab at the University of Oulu in Finland has found evidence that yeast homolog, biotin protein ligase may be dually localized. We believe that Hlcs may have a mitochondrial targeting sequence (MTS) to help facilitate its dual localization in the mitochondria and cytosol. We manipulated the proposed MTS using a CRISPR editing methodology and measured lipoylation and respiration levels to determine if mitochondrial fatty acid synthesis (mtFAS) is affected. As I worked on my project it became clear that I would not be able to complete it in the allotted time, so I was given several other little projects that also investigated other proteins in a similar fashion but in yeast. I completed my research by acquiring various cloning techniques, something I was not previously familiar with but has been added to my set of research skills.

While I went to Finland to gain research experience, I also hoped to experience the Finish culture. We get so comfortable and accustomed to the lifestyle in our hometown that spending more than a few days in a faraway place can be an eye opener. My first observation upon arrival was how beautiful the country was. Everything was clean and green - a vastly different scene from the desert in Tucson, Arizona. The weather was gloomy for most of my stay, but there was a period of a few weeks when the temperature was very pleasant. Anyone could tell the Finns appreciated good weather because the entire city would be out walking, skating, or biking around on the nicely paved paths that can take you just about anywhere. I used them extensively to go sightseeing. The paths were surrounded by beautiful forestry, a sight to see in itself. On one of these nice days, my lab mate Geoffray invited me to Tuira beach to swim in the river and play beach volleyball. Many people took advantage of the great weather to hang out there as well. It was the first time I had ever swam in a river. It was much colder than I would’ve preferred but the locals had other opinions.

Swimming in the river is a popular thing to do in Oulu, but enjoying time in sauna is the ultimate Finnish pastime. I was astonished to discover that just about every house/building would have a sauna. After trying one out for the first time, I found how relaxing it was and how nice it felt if it was a little cold out. The Finnish winter can be a rough one, with it always being nighttime and really cold (around -30C), and I could see how the sauna can help during those times. The sauna also felt so relaxing and good after going berry picking with another lab mate Antti. This was my first time picking blueberries, so I was excited. I geared up in boots and bug net clothes, and readied my berry scooper. After two hours in the woods and swampy areas, I probably collected as many mosquito bites as I did blueberries. The delicious wild blueberries and sauna afterwards were worth the bug bites though. I enjoyed my time in Finland so much that the only thing I would have done differently was to apply for an entire year in the BRAVO! Program. Then I could have work longer on my project and experienced more of the beautiful country of Finland.

I want to thank my PI, Dr. Carol Dieckmann, for mentoring me as I grow as a scientist. I would also like to thank Dr. Carol Bender for the help and opportunity to partake in BRAVO! And finally, I would like to thank Dr. Alex Kastaniotis and everyone I met in Finland for all the experiences and knowledge I have gained throughout my time in Finland.

This opportunity was funded in part by a grant to the University of Arizona from the National Institute of Health (MD001427).