Success & Impact

Saint Joseph’s Professor and Graduate Team up to Study Sleep Deprivation

Novel sleep research conducted by recent alumna Lizzie Wash ’22 has inspired a new grant application with her mentor, Jennifer Tudor, PhD, associate professor of biology. Wash is now in her first year of a PhD program at the University of Minnesota.

Tired woman leaning on counter drinking coffee

by Alex Hargrave ’20

Lizzie Wash ’22, a recent Saint Joseph’s biology graduate, wanted to know how people’s environments impacted their gene expression. In other words, how do outside factors – sleep deprivation, for example – impact traits that are inherent, such as memory.

“I was really interested in seeing what day-to-day things we are doing that are affecting a pretty big part of our lives — everything in our lives, almost — by changing gene expression, and how these environmental factors can be so tedious but have an impact on something as big as memory,” she says.

Now a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota studying molecular, cellular, developmental biology and genetics, Wash fostered that interest with the help of Jennifer Tudor, PhD, associate professor of biology

Tudor, with colleagues at the University of Iowa and Florida State University, has a multimillion-dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to research gene regulation and how sleep deprivation affects gene expression.

Wash had a similar interest and brought an idea to Tudor for a potential honors thesis project.

“She said, ‘There's not a ton of work that's been done on how sleep deprivation affects these epigenetic marks. Can I do a research project on that?’” Tudor says. “So her project was entirely her own idea.”

This field of study is called epigenetics, referring to how a person’s environment and behavior affects how their genes work. For example, someone could have a gene for being very tall, but have poor nutrition, meaning it’s never expressed, Tudor says. Wash used mice for this research, which is often an all-hands-on-deck experience in the lab, she says.

Her experiment involved a five-hour sleep deprivation exercise, which meant those who work in the lab checked in on the mice every hour, with trained lab members present for the duration. For a chronic sleep deprivation experiment that lasted a week, it was mostly Wash herself taking care of the mice. 

“I looked at two models of sleep loss and I found that in the cerebellum, the back part of the brain responsible for motor control and movement, in the chronically sleep restricted mice, there was a decrease in the acetylation at the tail of a histone protein, which an epigenetic mark at this part of the brain,” Wash says.

Now, Wash’s research in the field of epigenetics will be the basis for another grant that Tudor will apply for. Wash is a co-author on the manuscript describing her research, Tudor says.

“What she found is that sleep deprivation doesn’t affect one [region of the brain] and could affect another,” Tudor says. “With that very exciting finding, now the game plan is to utilize that as baseline material to write a new grant and launch a whole new area of research for my lab. And that all started because Lizzie was excited about this one area.”

This kind of collaboration with students is typical for Tudor. 

In her lab, students work for multiple semesters, moving through the ranks, earning more and more responsibilities. Wash joined Tudor’s lab her sophomore year, fall of 2019, and moved through those ranks until she worked as a lab manager for Tudor. She was also a supplemental instructor and a participant in the university’s Summer Scholars program. 

Wash says that Tudor was instrumental in helping her apply for graduate school and preparing her for the rigorous academic work by presenting posters at various seminars. 

“She was a really great mentor; she took my research seriously because I took my research seriously,” Wash says. “Working in the lab has really had a pretty huge impact on where I am now.”