Home Lifestyle Wingate student earns NCICU stipend for research on sheep

Wingate student earns NCICU stipend for research on sheep

Emma Ahrens, a student at Wingate, works in the lab. Photos by Wingate University

Wingate University senior Emma Ahrens is one of seven students from across the state to have been awarded a research stipend from North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities. The NCICU awards, ranging from $400 to $600, helped support student research that will be showcased Saturday at the State of North Carolina Undergraduate Research and Creativity Symposium on the campus of UNC-Wilmington.

Ahrens’ presentation, “Fetal Microchimerism in Sheep: Determining Patterns of Fetal Cell Transfer in the Ewe During Pregnancy and Beyond,” will showcase what she’s learned in her work alongside biology professor Dr. Alison Brown in the lab at Wingate and also in Dubois, Idaho, at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station.

“When a ewe produces offspring, there is a transfer of cells from the mother to the baby and fetal cells from the baby to the mother through the placenta,” Ahrens explains. “It is known, from previous studies, that male fetal cells may be present in tissues of the mother. Our research is an attempt to quantify the number of male fetal cells in the mother’s blood. To do that, we use a laboratory technique called quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR).”

Brown says Ahrens has spent countless hours working with her and with USDA scientists on the design of the project, starting with the development of specific research models that mimic the presence of male cells in female blood.

“Once our research models were set, we began working on techniques that allowed us to quantify male DNA in tissues, and we’re now starting to analyze blood samples from pregnant sheep,” Brown says. “Over the last two years, Emma has observed that research can be very time-consuming and produce unpredictable results, but her ability to grind along and remain curious will serve her well as a graduate student.”

Ahrens, who came to Wingate from Kennesaw, Georgia, says the chance to participate in research conversations and have hands-on experience in the lab has made her a more well-rounded student and has her eyeing research-based graduate programs.

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“I’ve learned the trial-and-error process as well as the continuous need to problem solve and think critically,” Ahrens says. “I am able to apply concepts that I have learned in classes, and I’ve learned how to communicate scientific information in a professional manner.”

A biology major with a minor in psychology, she chose Wingate because she was looking for a small school where she could have meaningful relationships with professors and play varsity volleyball. In fact, she’ll have to present her research at this weekend’s symposium via a video recording because she’s at the NCAA Division II tournament in Seattle this week. (Wingate will take on West Texas A&M on Thursday, Dec. 1.)

At the symposium, some 700 students will share their work via posters, presentations and performances.

“We are pleased to reward the intellect and creativity demonstrated by these undergraduate students,” wrote NCICU President Hope Williams in a press release announcing the stipends. “Each year we get to witness the passion and resourcefulness that could lead to game-changing research.”

Ahrens, who is set to graduate in May 2023, is applying to master’s programs for women’s health and reproductive physiology.

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