The Ohio State University at Marion

Ohio State Marion biology major Hannah Hylton earns fellowship to study DNA damage repair

Friday, September 25, 2020

senior biology major Hannah Hylton, head a shoulders photo

Please note: this photo was taken prior to COVID-19 mask guidelines.

Hannah M. Hylton, a senior biology pre-med major attending The Ohio State University at Marion, was one of a select group of students university-wide to receive a Pelotonia Undergraduate Fellowship Award through The James: The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, which provides research fellowships to the best and brightest Ohio State University undergraduate students who are invested in cancer research.

According to Hylton, she worked on her grant proposal for all of 2019 and received word of the award during the spring semester 2020. The one-time research grant of $9,000 gives Hylton the opportunity to build her resume for graduate school, earn money while she is learning, and help find answers to the question thousands of researchers across the country are studying – how do we find the best treatments for cancer? The grant covers her work from September 2020 through May of 2021.

In lay terms, Hylton’s research focuses on how DNA mutations that drive cancer accumulate.

“DNA often gets damaged. I look at what happens when this damage occurs and how your body decides to repair itself,” she said.

For example, she explained, our skin is damaged by ultra-violet radiation when we go out into the sun.

Hylton shared that her research centers on the mistakes that happen when a cell replicates itself. During DNA duplication, which is required when every cell divides, the genome is most vulnerable to being damaged. Mechanisms exist in the cell to repair the damage that accumulates during this stage. The problem is that while some DNA damage repair is practically error-proof, other pathways are error-prone, meaning that the original DNA damage sequence is not 100% restored. With time, this error-prone repair will lead to sufficient accumulation of DNA damage that can cause cancer. So, she developed an assay to study error-prone repair pathways. The goal is to understand why the cell chooses error-prone repair pathways when error-proof mechanisms of repair exist.

Rather than using human cells, she studies fission yeast in the lab, which is comparable in its repair to how human DNA replicates. Fission yeast is a cousin of baker’s yeast, also known as brewer’s yeast, and has been used as a model organism for DNA damage repair for many years. “This is very practical for the lab,” she said. Results are then extrapolated to human cells.

Hylton’s motivation to learn more about cancer research came from a personal scare she had with cancer.

“When I was in high school, I loved biology, I enjoyed it,” she said. “When I was sixteen, I had a scare with breast cancer,” which motivated Hylton to want to learn more.

Choosing to attend Ohio State Marion for college credit plus, Hylton was attracted to the Marion campus full-time because the biology degree was in place, which is where she met and began working in the lab of Assistant Professor of Molecular Genetics, Dr. Ruben Petreaca, who has been conducting cancer research since he came to Ohio State Marion.

Hylton was still in high school when she first met her mentor Petreaca through people she was tutoring. “I can’t tell you another scientist that will hire undergrads,” she shared.

“He is the ideal mentor. He is encouraging. He enriches my learning. When I walk out of the classroom, I understand the topic and can go to the lab and apply them,” she said.

When it comes to winning the fellowship Hylton added, “Petreaca taught me the biggest thing is to apply for everything.”

According to Petreaca, Hylton has been the ideal student researcher.

“Hannah Hylton is a driven undergraduate student with a passion for research,” said Petreaca. “She has maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average, while also being heavily involved in research.”

Not only has the senior biology major published one middle author paper and one co-first author paper with Petreaca, but she is currently working on another paper that the two hope to publish before the end of her Pelotonia Fellowship.

“Hannah intends to go to graduate school and the research experience at Ohio State Marion will not only give her the necessary scientific skills to hit the ground running but will also make her highly competitive for top graduate schools in the nation.”

“The big thing for me is that I am applying for grad school because I have enjoyed working and learning hands-on in the laboratory with Dr. Petreaca,” Hylton added. “I want to go on.”

What does the future hold for Hylton? She sees herself following in the steps of her mentor.

“I would love to be a professor. Maybe have my own lab one day and continue with cancer research. With what is happening in genetics every day, maybe we can make a difference, and I would like to teach,” she said.

Hylton believes the experiences she has garnered while at Ohio State Marion have been life altering.

“Opportunity is the biggest word that comes to mind. I went to school in Morrow County. I am from a small area. With research, money is a big deal,” she said.

“The people who work in the (Petreaca) lab at Ohio State Marion want to understand genetics and cancer. Receiving a fellowship grant from the James highlights that we are doing good research at Ohio State Marion,” said Hylton.

Hylton believes looking at cancer from a unique research aspect, where it starts, could help unlock more clues to finding a cure.

“We look at it in the beginning,” said Hylton. “If we figure out why cancer starts, we would be able to figure out why this happens. I don’t know why we look at the outcome and not the beginning.”

This year of research will be exactly that for Hylton, an opportunity to look at the origins of cancer and how it begins to find a way to cure it.