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Science and the Environment

The Many Responsibilities of a Local Scientist

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Anna Thomas
/
KSMU

“And of course the week before was like the busiest week probably of the entire year. I had like five projects running,” Hawkins said.

Jordan Hawkins, junior research scientist at Jordan Valley Innovation Center (JVIC) in Springfield, enters a code on a keypad that grants here access to the lab.

She normally arrives around 7 in the morning, and sometimes doesn’t leave until 6 p.m.

“It’s kind of what just needs to be done, and it’s very easy to do that when you have a passion for your work,” Hawkins said.

Located near downtown, JVIC works to develop various products for it corporate partners, and provides educational opportunities for Missouri State University students.

The career of a scientist can often be trapped in the stereotype of sci-fi movies and crime TV shows. But as Hawkins puts it, those portrayals aren’t always accurate.

“A typical day is not very typical. I am never doing the same thing twice in a week. It’s something different every day and I think that’s what I really enjoy about what I do,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins has many projects going on at once, all in different stages.

“I am currently working on some nutritional studies. We work with some companies that want to do some dietary modification. So they want to see how that may work as far as healthy weight gain and loss,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins has pulled out two vials of blood from a centrifuge. There is a clear separation of a liquid on top, which Hawkins pipettes out.

“What I will actually measure is the metabolite in nicotine. Nicotine has a relatively short half-life. It will degrade really quickly,” Hawkins said.

She'll examine the small tubes of serum and look for biomarkers, but first she puts them into the freezer.

“Like a drug test, and they’re looking for your smoking habits, that’s what they’re measuring. By and large is going to be continue just because it sticks around longer,” Hawkins said.

On this day, work on the nutritional study has now concluded. Hawkins pivots towards the next project on her to-do list. She's looking at a company's anti-inflammatory product.

“And so we’re going to see if this product can maybe, I’m not going to say cure diabetes, but alleviate some of the symptoms that come with type 2 diabetes,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins says people usually expect results to be immediate, but the diabetic study will take about a year and a half.

Each step of the process, Hawkins explains, is complicated in itself.

For example, PCR is a chain reaction in DNA. Most people think of PCR when they think of the DNA for a paternity test. It doesn't take too long for results, but that doesn't mean it isn't simple.

“What people don’t see is that you’ve got to collect your sample, you’ve got to isolate your RNA, you’ve got to purify your RNA, and then you have to make your CDNA, and then you have to do all your RT reactions, so it probably takes me three days on a good day, that’s if I’m really just focusing on that thing,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins moves into the next room to work with the microscope. It’s a darker space, fitted with a few other machines.

“When we want to look at a certain protein perhaps in a tissue and we want to see which cell types it’s in and where it’s localized,” Hawkins said. 

“It’s a very helpful technique, especially when you’re trying to figure out what cell types are responsible for a certain increase in like a protein,” Hawkins said.

Some techniques do not require constant observation, allowing researchers to multitask. But others they have to babysit, says Hawkins. She points to three of the machines around her, noting how many different steps each study can undergo to obtain results.

“I’m trained to do numerous techniques which is not usual. When you walk into labs a lot of times, first of all the undergrads are washing dishes. Second of all usually you have one person do this, one person do this, it’s a factory. And here, we get a lot of hands on experience across the board,” Hawkins said.

Another part of Hawkins’ day is spent mentoring students at Missouri State who help at the lab. They recently received a National Institute of Health grant to start a new project.

The NIH grant is a 3-year study, and researchers have a lot of work ahead of them.

“I say character building jokingly, but no, it’s actually a lot of fun. The students that we have are just great kids.  They’re here because they really like what they’re doing and some of them are here because they’re trying to figure out what they want to do and sometimes it’s fun to walk them through that process,” Hawkins said.

She normally allows the students to work amongst themselves, only giving directions and helping when they have questions.

“I can say that I watch the Big Bang, and I can identify very much so. But we’re all not necessarily holed up in our cubicle. We’re just normal people doing what we love,” Hawkins said.

The days can be long, and Hawkins sometimes comes in on the weekends to finish up experiments. But she always feels rewarded.

“You know, just kind of looking at the whole, and walking across different disciplines is very unusual. I’ve been definitely blessed for that opportunity,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins leaves for the day, thinking about what tomorrow will bring. It's usually something new, which Hawkins says she loves.