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Graduate Student's Research Rocks Around the Body's Clock

December 16, 2011

Roger Tseng was an undergraduate student studying molecular biology and biochemistry when he got his first opportunity to do research at UC Merced, working with Professor Benoit Dayrat researching the evolution of mollusks. Tseng found the hands-on lab experience unique and exciting.

My research background helped me hone in on what I wanted to study — protein,” Tseng said.

Now a graduate student in the Quantitative and Systems Biology (QSB) program, Tseng is part of a research team led by Professor Andy LiWang. The group is studying how three proteins interact to guide the circadian rhythms of cyanobacteria, which are believed to be one of the Earth’s oldest organisms.

Circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle and respond to light and darkness in an organism’s environment. Most living things — including animals, insects, plants and tiny microbes — have circadian rhythms; cyanobacteria possess a biological clock function that is similar to mammals.

Studying the simpler organism first helps us understand the more complex mammals,” Tseng said. “Circadian timing in mammals involves many components and is complicated. If we can understand how just three proteins can form a clock, it would help us greatly in understanding a complex clock with more gears.” 

Disrupted circadian rhythms in humans, which can be a result of jet lag, can lead to temporary sleep problems. It can also affect other important body functions, including temperature and how hormones are released. Studies on shift workers have associated disrupted circadian rhythm with serious health problems including obesity, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders and cancer.

We’re trying to understand the basic question — how do proteins function as a biological clock?” Tseng said.

Tseng, now in his second year of the QSB program, said the opportunity to do research as an undergraduate is what drew him to UC Merced. Before he enrolled in 2006, Tseng served six years in the U.S. Navy as an electronics technician. As his discharge date approached, he thought about his next move and knew it would include going to college and earning a degree. While stationed in San Diego, he volunteered at a local nature center, and the experience fueled his interest in biological research.

When considering schools to attend, he immediately zeroed in on the University of California because of its international reputation and quality of its research programs.

He chose UC Merced because it was a new campus and he believed there’d be more opportunities to work with faculty and conduct research.

During Tseng’s three years as an undergraduate research assistant, he participated in a genome research course called Genome Biology. His senior year, he was accepted into the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training program funded by the National Institutes of Health, which sent him to work with top researchers in Muenster, Germany, for five months.

Last year, Tseng applied for and won a fellowship with the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship program. He believes that his research experiences while at UC Merced gave him a competitive edge. Meanwhile, he appreciates the mentoring and encouragement he’s received from faculty during his time on campus.

Research is hard work, but it’s also satisfying,” Tseng said. “Science is very powerful. You get to predict things, and when you discover that your prediction is true, it’s a wonderful feeling.”