Student Research Showcase: Kyrie Milliron

1. What was your path to UCCS and working with your faculty mentor?

Science has always been a passion of mine. In elementary school, I was in an after school club called Science Matters where we did weekly experiments. In middle school, I participated in the regional and state science fairs twice. In high school, I took AP Chemistry and AP Biology. Along the way I had some amazing mentors, Candace Muir and Linda Cummings, who inspired me to pursue a degree in Biochemistry. Since my sophomore year of high school, I knew I wanted to go to UCCS. Having a great university in my hometown would benefit me financially in the long run. What really drew me to UCCS and made my decision was the fact I would be able to do undergraduate research work. I was very intrigued when I learned I could work one on one with a research mentor and possibly work on my own research project. The spring semester of my sophomore year of college, 2021, I learned about the work Dr. Kovacs does in his lab. I was excited by it and fascinated by the projects. The immune system and viruses have always been an interest of mine and working on a virus that has no therapeutics or vaccines was exciting. After talking with Dr. Kovacs, I joined his lab that summer and began my research journey.

2. If you were describing your research/creative work to someone outside of your field, what would you say?

I work on the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV), more commonly known as infectious mono, in Dr. Kovacs’s Biochemistry lab. This virus results in either an asymptomatic response in infant infection or a symptomatic response in children, teens, and adults. Regardless of when the initial infection occurs, the virus remains dormant in the body until the immune system becomes compromised. This dormancy has been suggested to reactive when one develops a severe disease such as cancer. There are currently no therapies or vaccines against EBV. The full name of my current project is Understanding the Molecular Determinants Required for Epstein-Barr Virus Attachment. Before a therapy or vaccine is made, the basics of how the virus attacks, attaches too, and stays dormant in the immune system are needed. I am researching how the main part of the virus (viral surface glycoprotein 350) attaches to a certain part of our immune system (complement receptor 2). This will give insight into how the virus attaches to the immune system and is able to stay dormant in the body.

3. Which concept or discovery from your research/creative work most excites, invigorates or inspires you? 

This past summer, 2022, I started working with human cell lines and expressing the proteins I work with in the cells. This was a huge jump for not only my research but also the field of research on EBV. This was the first time these proteins have been expressed in a mammalian cell line. I was invigorated by being the first person to express these proteins in a mammalian cell line for experimentation. This past summer I was able to advance my research and learn many new procedures. I was also able to make several discoveries about the binding of gp350 to CR2 which was truly exciting. I look forward to advancing my research and plan on undertaking this as my master’s project as well. I can also thank the Undergraduate Research Academy for the opportunity to advance my research this past summer.

4. Describe how and why this research/creative work was started.  

This research project was not started by me. Dr. Kovacs began this project and multiple research students have worked on it ahead of me. I am the only one in his lab working on this project now and have full control over its progress with the help of Dr. Kovacs. The work started as an interest in the immune system and how this virus has no therapeutics or vaccines.

5. What has the experience of working with your faculty mentor and fellow researchers been like?       

Working with Dr. Kovacs has been great. He is an amazing mentor and I truly have learned a lot with my experiences in the lab. Dr. Kovacs mentors more in a hands off type of way. He will let us as researchers work by trial and error and learn from our mistakes. He is always around if we need help or have questions. He will walk us through a procedure and then let us have a go at it to see how it turns out. There is no true fear of failure in the lab making it less stressful. By making mistakes or having things go wrong I was able to learn quickly there is a lot of “re” in research as Dr. Kovacs says. I have also built a relationship with Dr. Kovacs to where it feels comfortable to always go and ask questions or troubleshoot problems with him. He never judges and answers all questions. He often uses the Socratic method of helping me through a problem and lets me try to solve it before just giving me the answers. I love how my lab is shared with other professors as well allowing me to get to know many researchers from other labs. It has built a little community that is friendly with one another and one where we can help each other out if need be. Some of us have better expertise in different areas leading to collaboration on problems.

6. How has this work helped prepare you for your future in graduate school or your career?

My research experience has given me confidence in my ability to complete graduate school and have a career afterwards. I do plan on receiving my master’s degree from UCCS as well. I feel prepared as I am established in a lab and have my own project for my thesis work. Once I graduate with my master’s degree, I am confident I will be able to obtain a job I am excited about. I would love to have a career in the research industry once I graduate with my master’s degree. I have gained many skills through my research experience. They are skills that will help set me apart from other candidates in the workforce giving me a better chance with the jobs I truly want. Laboratory skills are not the only skills I have gained though. I know how to effectively communicate with a superior and with other researchers. I also know how to communicate scientific data to the public and fellow researchers as I have presented my work during my research experience.

7. What has been the most memorable part of working on this project with your faculty mentor?

The most memorable part was this past summer, 2022. I worked in the lab almost every day since I was a part of the Undergraduate Research Academy. I had one on one time with Dr. Kovacs as I was mainly the only researcher consistently in the lab. I also started many new procedures this summer. I got to know Dr. Kovacs more this summer as well as advancing my research. I was sad for the end of the summer because I knew I would not be able to do much research once the semester started. I was in a routine that I enjoyed most days and wished I could have kept that routine.

8. What advice would you give first-year students who are interested in working with a faculty mentor?

Working in a research lab will give you a skill set that will set you apart from others when you join the workforce. You will already have years of experience in a laboratory straight out of college. You will also learn how to effectively communicate with a superior and build a relationship with them. Your mentor will be able to write in depth letters of recommendation for you as well for your future career. Working in a research lab is also rewarding when you are the one to discover something new.

If you are interested in the projects Dr. Kovacs is working on definitely join his lab. He is an amazing mentor who will give you a skillset other labs don’t offer. You will grow as a person and as a researcher working in this lab. Working in this lab you must be an independent worker or learn how to work on your own. You are going to have many opportunities to troubleshoot problems by yourself and you must learn to ask questions to truly understand your project. Your fellow researchers and Dr. Kovacs will be around to help and are always willing to help.

The Undergraduate Research Academy encourages UCCS students to expand their education beyond the classroom through participation in research and creative projects while engaging in mentorship with UCCS faculty. The yearlong collaborative research projects further students’ professional and academic development while furthering faculty members’ research program goals.

UCCS celebrates this year’s cohort of Undergraduate Research Academy student and faculty researchers. All those interested in participating should visit the Undergraduate Research Academy website for more information.