Deconstructing Biological Wonder
Jiun Tseng ’22
Biology, Mathematics, Studio Arts minor, Commonwealth Honors College
“My mentors introduced me to a world of research opportunities that I never knew existed.”
Jiun Tseng’s Chinese family immigrated from Vietnam to Arkansas when she was 15. “My dad works hard as a nail manicurist and I want to work hard to make the most of the gift of education that he gave me,” Tseng says. “Math and biology give me that rigor.”
At UMass Amherst she has worked in two different research labs and earned several fellowships while learning to use mathematical computation to understand biological processes.
The focus of her first research project was metamorphosis. “It’s amazing that holometabolous insects—more than 40 percent of all living species—can become completely different animals from the same genome,” she says. “It’s a biological wonder!”
Studying the moth Manduca sexta using quantitative magnetic resonance technology and high resolution respirometry, Tseng demonstrated that fat fuels metamorphosis. She repeated this experiment with different insect groups to verify that this is a fundamental process.
I believe that education is a right, not a privilege. Equal access to education is the solution to many of the critical social crises we face.
Tseng worked in the Integrative Environmental Physiology lab of Assistant Professor Alexander Gerson. She was mentored by Derrick Groom, postdoctoral research associate in the Gerson lab, now an assistant professor at San Francisco State University. Lawrence M. Schwartz, Eugene M. and Ronnie Isenberg Professor of Integrated Sciences, also reviewed her research. He says, “Some of her experiments have more than 250,000 individual measurements. Jiun’s data are rock solid.”
She will be the first author on an academic paper based on this research.
Tseng currently works in the Schwartz lab examining the cellular and molecular processes that regulate programmed cell death. She studies the role of the astacin protease, whose expression increases 3,000-fold at the time of cell death. Her computational and biochemical studies will serve as the foundation of a second paper.
Praising Tseng’s energy, raw talent and breadth, Schwartz says, “I have taught at UMass for 33 years and have worked with some extremely talented undergraduates. Jiun however, is in a league of her own.”
“We have an amazing working relationship,” says Tseng. “Professor Schwartz has shown that he believes in me. He’ll say: let’s run with this, let’s get more experiments done, let’s write a paper!”
Tseng is also completing a minor in Studio Arts; her scientific illustrations have been published in Integrative and Comparative Biology and she has exhibited original art works at the UMass Fine Arts Center. “Art has always been there for me as a source of renewal,” she says. “I try to bring creativity to everything that I do.”
Upon graduating, she will research pediatric leukemia at the UMass Chan Medical School under the supervision of Professor Lucio Castilla and apply to biocomputational PhD programs.
Tseng is passionate about helping other underrepresented and first-gen students get to college. “I believe that education is a right, not a privilege,” she says. “Equal access to education is the solution to many of the critical social crises we face.”