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Keon Wimberly - PhD Student Spotlight: Molecular Stress Biologist-

By Rosie Kereston

Keon Wimberly, a PhD candidate in the Genetics & Genomics program, was awarded Best Presentation of the inaugural Graduate Student Showcase this past April. He spoke about his primary research topic: how the extracellular matrices of multicellular organisms respond to environmental stresses on a molecular biological level.

“It was a great practice opportunity for me,” Wimberly said, citing the unique format of the Graduate Showcase. The recent virtual event allowed for brief three-minute presentations on students’ research. “It can be an uphill battle to get people to care about your work, so these elevator talks are a great opportunity to practice that skill.”

By designing an accessible yet informative talk for a broad audience, it can engage those who might not otherwise appreciate or understand a researcher’s work. Wimberly stated that effective, earnest science communication is something that many fields lack.

“You want to get as many people engaged as possible. If you can’t get people engaged, they aren’t going to care about what you do in the lab or if it gets funded... Half the battle of research is getting people to care about your research.”

Wimberly conducts research in the lab of Keith Choe. Photo by UF Health.

A graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana and first-generation college student, Wimberly had an unusual introduction to the UFGI. Unlike most students who pick their academic programs, it was the other way around for Wimberly. After applying for over a dozen different PhD programs, his application attracted the UFGI’s attention, who then offered him an interview.

“When I applied to the biomedical sciences PhD program, I hadn’t heard of the UFGI. I didn’t even apply to the Genetics and Genomics program in the first place! Life always works out in unexpected ways.”

Wimberly spoke fondly of the UFGI, stating that, “…it is such a student-centric program. They are action oriented, and they really listen to the students… I have no regrets in picking this program for my PhD. I will always be the biggest advocate of the UFGI.”

The multidisciplinary nature of the program initially attracted Wimberly, as he liked the idea of not being confined to one school. Up until then, he had exclusively worked in biomedical research labs and had his heart set on obtaining his PhD in the biomedical sciences. Contrary to his expectations, he found after first year rotations his mindset had begun to change.

“The lab I decided on, the Choe Lab, was not biomedical and not even a part of the medical school. I really learned to appreciate something new through my rotations.”

Wimberly did not know anything about scientific research until college, when a summer research expedition to Yellowstone introduced him to different ways for science to positively impact people.

"Hot water running over mineral and bacteria deposits in Yellowstone, Wyoming, WY" by Tim Pearce, Los Gatos. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

“I am a first-generation guy. I had barely ever been outside of where I grew up in Louisiana, barely knew anything about research. Then, I was in the mountains of Yellowstone, retrieving archaic bacteria, trying to analyze them.”

Immediately after college, he applied to medical school before deciding that the medical field track was not for him. He cited his lack of knowledge about research careers as a reason this change took some time.

“Not a lot of people who look like me are in research. If you don’t see yourself represented, it is harder to see yourself in these positions. A main reason is that a lot of people don’t know about… these careers. Being able to see yourself in someone makes a difference.”

“[I will do] anything to help expand knowledge to a general audience and also encourage people who look like me to join these labs. It’s kind of a passion of mine.”

Wimberly is studying the nontraditional ways that organisms can respond to stress.

"The broad theme of my research revolves around identifying and defining the molecular pathways in which cells and tissues can detect and respond to this abiotic stress, specifically stress induced by perturbations in the barrier extracellular matrix.”

He explained that due to logistical and ethical complexities of doing biomedical research on higher vertebrae such as humans, it is necessary to find model organisms to fill this important research niche. C. elegans are a popular example of this.

C. elegans are microscopic nematodes that have a simple, but fully developed nervous, muscular, digestive, and reproductive systems that share a lot of physiological characteristics with humans. Aside from physiology, humans and C. elegans both have around 20k protein coding genes, and about 60-80% of C. elegans coding genes have human homologs.”

The cuticle of C. elegans, akin to the exoskeleton of an insect or skin in humans, is the physical barrier between the multicellular organism’s extracellular matrix and its environment. This barrier is a critical area of study for understanding how different stressors impact the organism on a cellular level.

A couple of years ago, a unique paradigm was found in the Choe Lab. These stress pathways could be activated by disorganizing the cuticle in C. elegans. Salinity and heat can cause this disorganization and can activate certain responses, and Wimberly postulates that these pathways are not exclusively chemical; rather, they are like mechanical switches that are activated and deactivated.

“In our model, we found that the cuticle can activate stress responses. We want to figure out how this happens. We can make a broad hypothesis to assume that maybe these stressors don’t have a chemical effect, but maybe our skin can detect disorganization.”

Wimberly explained that an example of this is found in tissue fibrosis, which is “defined by the overgrowth, hardening, and/or scarring of various tissues in the barrier extracellular matrix. The resulting pathologies associated with fibrosis are poorly understood, but we can infer that many of these pathologies are associated with aberrant stress activation in the underlying cells and tissues.”

“We’ve been able to accomplish a lot with [C. elegans] over the years… We can take what we learn and we can apply it to all sorts of different systems and models.”

Wimberly aims to graduate at the end of the year and hopes to stay at UF for his postdoctoral research.

“It is not a particular topic or disease model that I am exclusively interested in researching… I can grow to be passionate about many areas of research. I was trained as a classical geneticist, a molecular biologist. From cancer models to studying exotic diseases in plants, I have developed toolkits for almost any genetic science… I want to always be learning and growing my curiosity.”

Wimberly stated that if we do not use scientific advances to improve the social conditions in society, “you can have all the knowledge in the world but it won’t truly help those who would benefit most from it.”

Wimberly wishes to thank his PI, Keith Choe, for challenging and supporting him as the best PhD advocate he could ask for. He also wishes to thank his wife, a physician and faculty member within UF Health, for encouraging him to go to UF in the first place and being there for him throughout their academic journeys.

“I love science so much…The worst place to be is when you feel like you know everything. You should always be learning!” ∎

Photos of Keon Wimberly courtesy of Maddie Haggbloom and UF Health.

Photo of C. elegans by ZEISS Microscopy. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.