Category: Blog


Published: July 31, 2013

Curing Diseases With The Help of Robots

Erica Zahnle, DNA Educator and Researcher, Integrative Research Center

Teaching Systems Biology and Genetics Through Inquiry
Sam Bettis is the Technical Director of the University of Chicago’s Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology Cellular Screening Center (CSC).  He manages day-to-day operations of the CSC.  Sam assist’s Chicago investigators in adapting cell-based assays for high throughput screening and to perform that screening at cost.  To learn more about Sam and the Cellular Screening Center visit the CSC website.  This video can also be found on The Field Museum's Vimeo page.

"Systems-based approaches have changed how we attack drug discovery.  By trying to replicate an entire system instead of just a component of a system we are able to more accurately replicate biological processes and have a greater chance of success in ultimately finding a cure." – Sam Bettis, University of Chicago







Erica Zahnle


I joined the Museum's Exhibitions Department in 2004 to market and travel Field Museum produced science exhibitions worldwide.  The exhibits developed by this institution are incredibly informative and engaging, so much so that one in particular, Gregor Mendel: Planting The Seed Of Genetics, inspired me to go back to school to be on the other side of the exhibit as the scientist.  After taking all the undergraduate courses in biology and chemistry necessary to pursue a masters degree in biology, I was hired as a research assistant in the Pritzker Lab.  In addition, I work as the lead educator for the Rice DNA Discovery Center–a permanent exhibition that helps Museum visitors explore the science behind DNA.  

As a researcher I work on a variety of projects and interact with some of the brightest scientists in the world. I have looked at the genetic diversity of Madagascan cavefish, plumed African birds, and microscopic pathogens.  Right now I am part of The Emerging Pathogens Project, generating sequences for DNA barcoding in bird species.  This entails amplifying the Cytochrome b (Cyt b) gene on the mitochondrial DNA of different taxa of birds.  These barcodes will be useful in identifying correlations of infection between avian hosts and some of their protozoan parasites, Plasmodium and Haemoproteus, which are responsible for avian malaria and are detectable through PCR techniques.

On weekdays I host "Talk to the Scientist Hour" in the DNA Discovery Center, a Q&A session that educates the public about the ongoing research in the Pritzker Lab.  However, the most rewarding part of my job is running the DNA Residency, a program bringing four high school students and two high school biology teachers into the Pritzker Lab for a six-week summer course.  They are trained in genetic techniques, including DNA extraction, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and DNA sequencing.  Working with teenagers is exhilarating, mentally stimulating, and fun.  I love hearing from them as they are accepted into some of the best universities in the world.

For more information about my job, or the ongoing research and people in the Pritzker Lab, become a fan and check out the notes section of our facebook page-The DNA Discovery Center and Pritzker Lab at the Field Museum.