PhD student brings bartending to the lab

By Christine Buckley, CLAS Today

Mark Longo has spent the last 15 years in an unexpected line of work for someone earning a PhD in genetics. But, he says, he wouldn’t trade his thousands of nights of bartending for anything.

“I’m a good talker,” the molecular and cell biology graduate student says emphatically. Having to explain his work to countless patrons in his bar, he says, has helped him become the talented teacher and researcher that he is today.

A native of Manchester, Longo received an associate’s degree in general studies from Manchester Community College in 1994 and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UConn in 2000. He always had a strong interest in genetics, so upon graduating he began taking courses in biology at UConn, continuing with his bartending to pay the bills.

Within three years, Longo was accepted to UConn’s PhD program in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology.

Longo has spent the last six years working in the laboratory of Associate Professor Rachel O’Neill. Their laboratory group focuses on the centromere, the portion of a cell in which DNA attaches and then pulls apart during cell replication.

Biologists have discovered that, unlike most cellular events, cell replication isn’t guided by DNA, but by special proteins floating around in the cell. Since there’s no genetic code for centromere formation, geneticists are now discovering the specific elements responsible for this important function that, if performed improperly, can lead to cell death.

Longo has discovered a new class of these cell elements, which have many important functions in the cell. He has shown that these elements, a subgroup of the so-called small RNAs, play important roles in centromere function.

Learning about centromeres is vital, says Longo, for investigating specific diseases. Cancer and Down’s Syndrome both show centromere malfunction in affected individuals. “If we don’t know what generates the location of the centromere, we can’t identify the development of the disease,” he says.

His experience with O’Neill, he says, has been inspirational.

“Rachel has been great – she’s given me the freedom to my interests and follow where my data took me,” he says. “We’re very like-minded in our search for answers.”

Longo has received a post-doctoral position for two years in the MCB department, where he will likely be teaching advanced laboratory technique modules in conjunction with the Center for Applied Genetics and Technology. He hopes to continue with his research in a tenure-track academic position or one in the genetic technology industry.

Although he admits with a chuckle that he took a long time figuring out what he wanted to do with his life, Longo wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I really didn’t like school until I went to college,” he says. “Then I was able to choose courses that I thought were interesting. I wasn’t going to settle for a job that I hated, so I just kept on looking until I found what I like.”

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