Associate Professor of Molecular Biology
Areas of Expertise: Cell biology, forensic biology, genetics, and bioinformatics
As an undergraduate, I did research on nematodes (round worms) that infect soybeans plants. It was cool because half of the lab members were “plant people” and half were “worm people” but the research was all focused on what happens when plants and worms meet. Of course, the goal of all of this was to protect the plants and kill the worms, and this gave the plant side of the lab a very smug attitude. During breaks from college, I worked in a totally different research environment – industrial microbiology. Specifically, we worked on strains of soil bacterium that are used to synthesize large amounts of amino acids for use as additives in livestock feed. It was very interesting to see how cutting-edge genetic engineering was used for a very complex agricultural need, and it was this experience that led me to change my career path from medicine to biomedical research. I went to graduate school at Saint Louis University and studied control of the cell division cycle by intracellular signaling pathways. I then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at NYU Medical Center where I learned how to use computational techniques to reveal patterns in biological data. This was also where I began learning about the complex control of gene expression.
The Lents lab has started two exciting new projects in the area of forensic biology. We are analyzing the community of microbes that live on human skin and how it changes after the death of the human host. This involves collection of bacterial swabs from decomposing human bodies, so this project is in collaboration with the Anthropology Research Facility at the University of Tennessee. Our lab is also involved in developing rapid DNA-based technology for the identification of pollen that is casually inhaled by humans when they are in proximity of a flower in bloom. By identifying which flowers a person was recently exposed to, investigators may get clues to link victims or suspects to specific locations in the hours prior to being swabbed.