Experiencing ‘grace’ in her own life inspires Lumen Scholar’s research on infertility

Grace Garrett ’21, under the mentorship of Associate Professor of Biology Jen Uno, is examining the gut microbiome of the zebrafish to address unanswered questions about the fertility and reproductive health of humans.

John Page and Sandy Garrett tried for nearly a decade to have a child. They suffered through the pain and sorrow of a series of miscarriages and learned it would be impossible for them to conceive. But then “grace” shined down on them.

“They conceived me,” said Grace Garrett ’21, a biology major from Nashville. “And so they named me Grace because they saw it as grace from God.”

After eight years of emotional and mental trauma, the Garretts brought Grace and, soon after, her sister Anna Pearl into the world without any indications as to how or why their luck had changed. Today, Grace hopes to answer their questions through a unique opportunity at Elon.

Now an Elon College Fellow, Grace Garrett is one of 15 student recipients of the 2019 Lumen Prize, the university’s premier award for undergraduate research. The Lumen Prize includes a $20,000 scholarship and the chance to work closely with a faculty mentor for two years to complete research, which often produces conference presentations and publications. The award is granted to rising juniors each year who prove to a committee of faculty members from across campus that they have the merit, proposal and passion to carry out their project.

Garrett set out to examine the gut microbiome – the ecosystem of bacteria, viruses and fungi found in the intestines that influence the function of the human body – and its effects on fertility. She selected Associate Professor of Biology Jen Uno as the mentor for her Lumen research.

Associate Professor of Biology Jen Uno serves as the faculty mentor for Garrett’s research project. (photo by Kim Walker)

“Grace’s story and stories like hers are some of my favorite research projects that I’ve ever pursued,” Uno said. “I’m a very firm believer in my students having a solid investment in their projects because I really want them to be able to drive their own research questions.”

Uno guided Garrett through the difficult process of crafting an effective question and proposal to pitch her research project to the Lumen Prize selection committee. And through it all, Garrett’s enthusiasm for her research topic convinced the committee she deserved the prize. The honor meant Garrett would have the opportunity to study her chosen topic for two years with the help of a faculty mentor and without financial constraints.

“It was such a happy moment, such of feeling of, ‘yes, I worked hard for this and I was recognized for my hard work,’” she said. “It gave me such excitement for the future.”

Garrett’s research topic, “The gut microbiome and its influence on hormones and fertility,” steps into somewhat uncharted territory as there is very little research connecting the microbiome to the hormonal imbalances associated with infertility.

“Fertility has always been so interesting to me because it’s so unexplained in so many ways,” Garrett said. “People aren’t sure why things happen, why it’s difficult to get pregnant sometimes, even when you’re seemingly doing everything right.”

To shed light on the issue, Garrett focused her research on the zebrafish, an organism whose gut microbiome and reproductive system closely resemble that of humans. Garrett’s study explores the microbiome’s influence on fertility by altering sex hormone production in the system. To analyze the effects, Garrett is treating the zebrafish with antibiotics to alter the population of bacteria in the gut microbiome and see how the change impacts estrogen levels produced in the fish.

The quest to find results has not always been easy. And for those difficult moments, Garrett says it has been nice to have Uno, who previously served as her faculty advisor, to offer advice. For instance, Garrett was admittedly frustrated when her first experiment for the gut microbiome project failed, but she remembers Uno telling her that science is like baseball batting averages – getting it right three out of 10 times isn’t so bad. Moments like that are what perfectly sum up the Lumen Scholar-mentor relationship for Garrett.

“It’s very student-driven,” she said. “Dr. Uno is there to give me guidance and to give her expertise, but she allows me to really take the reins and take ownership of my project, which I really value.”

But one thing Uno couldn’t prepare Garrett for was a global pandemic. COVID-19 forced Elon to transition the spring 2020 semester to an online learning format, which meant Garrett would miss out on two months of hands-on research. To stay on track, she’s had to increase her research credit hours this semester while still juggling the rest of her senior-year schedule.

“It’s been difficult to balance for sure,” she said. “But I am very hopeful for when I should soon have data and will finally get to see what all of my hard work has resulted in.”

Her commitment to finding results is what Uno says sets Garrett apart. She’s noticed the senior become more confident in the lab as she faces challenges head on.

“I think she knew that there wouldn’t be a lot of right and wrong in the lab, and I really was proud of her for being willing to take that risk,” Uno said. “Infertility is grounded in such unknown, such unanswerable questions, the idea of having even a small answer has really driven Grace – it’s really driven both of us.”

Garrett will continue collecting data in preparation for her senior seminar presentation for biology later this academic year, and after that, she plans to present her work at research conferences. When she graduates in the spring, Garrett will turn her attention to medical school, where she hopes to learn the skills necessary to become an OBGYN or genetics specialist. But as she prepares to conclude her time at Elon, Garrett hopes the research she’s conducting right now can provide meaningful data and make a positive impact in the future.

“I’m very hopeful that maybe what I’m doing will be able to help someone like my parents who so desperately wanted to conceive,” she said. “I just want to give them some hope.”