Our 2021-2022 Distinguished Thesis Award winner was Ben Evans. Ben earned his MS in Biology in May of 2021, and he is currently a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Ben’s advisor, Dr. Doug Bernstein  said, “I nominated Ben for this award because his thesis answered important questions in our field. Ben was able to modify a genome editing technique to make it even more powerful.  His thesis work will allow other researchers to more easily genetically engineer the human fungal pathogen C. albicans.  This is even more impressive given the challenges of finishing a thesis during the pandemic.  A number of the things about Ben stand out and make him an outstanding researcher.  He is a hard worker and finisher.  One of the most challenging things to do as an investigator is to finish the last experiment or sets of experiments in a project. Ben’s drive and persistence allowed him to finish those last experiments so that his project could be published and presented in public.  In addition, Ben enjoys discussing his work with other researchers.  He has the ability to sort, synthesize, and leverage the input he gets from other investigators to his benefit when designing experiments. “

Here is a Q&A with Ben:

What made you select your research topic?

I initially selected to investigate Candida albicans Ume6 because not much was known about the function of its protein domains in C. albicans. During my time researching Ume6 in Dr. Bernstein’s lab, I also gained an interest in determining the role of its homolog, Ume7, which has not been characterized. I also developed a particular interest in CRISPR-mediated genome editing during my time in the Bernstein lab, which ultimately lead to my work in the development of the CRISPR/SpRY system for C. albicans.

Please tell us about your research?

C. albicans Ume6 plays an important role in filamentation, a critical aspect of C. albicans virulence. Knocking out Ume6 decreases virulence and ablates filamentation; however, the functions of individual regions in Ume6 have not been well studied. I therefore aimed to characterize the function of these regions in filamentation. I found that the Ume6 C-terminal domain is required for proper filamentation.

There were several challenges to mutate UME6 DNA with traditional CRISPR/Cas9 methods, including limited targetable sites and inefficient editing. To overcome these, I developed a CRISPR/SpRY system for C. albicans that expands the number of residues we can target and enables efficient editing. This system is now available to other labs and will be used to target regions of DNA that cannot be accessed by traditional CRISPR methods.

I additionally aimed to characterize the C. albicans Ume6 homolog, Ume7. I first tested the effect of knocking out Ume7 in filamentation and found that C. albicans filamentation was unaffected by Ume7 knockout. I next wanted to determine if Ume7 plays a role in C. albicans mating, because the Saccharomyces cerevisiae homolog plays a role in S. cerevisiae mating. I did not find any significant changes to C. albicans white opaque switching, an essential phenotypic switch required for mating.

What brought you to Ball State University?

I came to Ball State because a lot of my family members came here and became successful in their fields. I also was aware of the great hands-on training that the Ball State Biology department offers, which helped make BSU a clear choice for my undergraduate and Master’s.

What are your future goals/career goals?

I would like to earn my PhD in the field of molecular biology and conduct research, focusing on RNA biology, at a university. I especially want to be able to offer undergraduate researchers the same opportunities that were given to me.