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Lab Culture with Randall Roper

Sep 6, 2018
Roper with students
Biology professor Randall Roper, second from left, poses for a picture with his lab students. The Down syndrome researcher says his students drive the traditions and culture in his lab. Because the students work closely with each other, Roper strives for lab unity and cohesiveness.Photo by Ashlynn Neumeyer, Indiana University

The Lab Culture series explores the research, traditions and quirks in labs across the IUPUI campus.

In a roundabout way, the velvety voice of Steve Perry could inspire the next breakthrough in the study of Down syndrome.

Biology associate professor Randall Roper’s lab has the long-standing tradition of listening to pop hits from the 1980s during dissections of mouse tissue. The tiny specimens’ tissues are studied to understand the skeletal and cognitive defects in individuals with Down syndrome. Songs by Journey, Bon Jovi and other bands from the decade of big hair, spandex and “ALF” are pumped into the lab to help calm nerves during the precise work. The members of Roper’s lab have found that a familiar, upbeat soundtrack helps bring better results.

Biology graduate student Jared Thomas is a child of the ’90s but says he has come to appreciate “Don’t Stop Believing,” probably Perry’s most famous track.

Description of the following video:

Randall Roper speaks: Our laboratory is really divided into two parts.]
[Words appear: IUPUI presents]
[Roper voiceover with visuals of lab: Half of the lab studies skeletal deficits involved in Down syndrome. The other half of the lab studies cognitive deficits. Principally, we use mouse models, though we also have a collaboration with the Down syndrome clinic at Riley Hospital.]
[Words appear: Randall Roper, associate professor of biology]
[Roper speaks in his office: And we use cell models as well to help understand some of our phenotypes.
[Video: Students work in Roper’s lab]
[Roper speaks: One of the things that we do every year is we go with the lab to the Buddy Walk, which is a walk that promotes individuals with Down syndrome.]
[Video: various photos of Roper’s team posing at Buddy Walks over the years, along with runners’ bibs and T-shirts with the lab’s team name for that year]
[Roper speaks: And usually for that we will have a lab T-shirt, where we’ll do something like that and have a fun lab name. And so the people at Down Syndrome Indiana always look forward to see which lab name we’ll come up with this year.]
[Video: Roper smiles as he shows the camera various team T-shirts from the Buddy Walks]
[Video: Roper is walking around in a conference room talking to team members sitting at the table. He speaks to them: “Cowboy salsa, so black bean, that’s fresh.”]
[Roper voiceover: Really the thing that keeps our lab together and keeps our lab focused is our weekly lab meetings. So we have lab meetings every Friday from 2 to 4. It’s a good way to end out the week. Everybody talks about what they’re doing.]
[Roper speaks in his office: We look at research of others, we have students that present their own research. We talk about what’s going on in the lab; we organize who’s going to do what in the coming week. We plan activities that we want to do together. So lab meetings are really the glue that keeps the lab together.]
[Video: An image of a music cassette tape that says ’80s mix’]
[Music: ’80s-style synth track]
[Roper speaks: It’s just a tradition that we have whenever we do mouse dissections. We’re taking tissues for different experiments. There’s always ’80s music playing in the lab…]
[Visual: a black woman and a white woman in bright makeup and ’80s-style clothing and hair jamming out to a boom box]
[Roper speaks: …and so that’s just something that we’ve come to do.]
[Video back to Roper’s office: And I don’t think my students have ever been able to best me on ‘Name That Tune and Artist,’ because I know them all.]
[Visual: black-and-white photo of the band Bon Jovi]
[Jared Thomas voiceover: For me it’s always either Jon Bon Jovi, “Wanted Dead or Alive,” or Journey, “Don’t Stop Believing.”]
[Visual: close-up photo of former Journey lead singer Steve Perry]
[Jared Thomas in the lab: I mean, I like to sing a little vocals in the background. That is always fun.]
[Words appear: Jared Thomas, biology graduate student]
[Words appear: IUPUI fulfilling the promise]
[End of transcript]

“It’s always good to play that music and get into the mood for a dissection,” said Thomas, who is finishing his thesis on early-onset osteoporosis in individuals with Down syndrome. “I like to sing along. It’s always fun.”

Roper prides himself on his playlists as well as having the status of lab champion at Name That Tune. He is passionate about providing a lab that brings his students – grad and undergrad – together in the name of improving the lives of people with Down syndrome.

“It’s important that students get along with each other. We have a number of projects on which they work and collaborate together,” Roper said. “We’ve always had active and outgoing students in the lab.”

For more than a decade, Roper’s lab has been a part of the annual Indianapolis Buddy Walk, a fall event that raises money and awareness for Down syndrome. Along with family and friends, the IUPUI scientist leads his students in the event. All wear matching shirts that the lab designs from scratch. Past themes have included “The Mouse Pack,” “Roper’s Research Colony” and “Roper’s Murine Corps,” a play on a scientific name for mice. The lab’s theme for the Oct. 13 walk is “Bone Thugs N’ Trisomy.” It’s another nod to music, this time from the 1990s: Bone Thugs-N-Harmony was known for such hits as “1st of tha Month,” “Crossroads” and “Foe tha Love of Money,” which featured the late Eazy-E. “Trisomy” is a term in genetics for when there are three instances of a chromosome instead of the usual two.

Randall Roper leads a meeting.
Biology professor Randall Roper leads one of his lab’s weekly meetings.Photo by Ashlynn Neumeyer, Indiana University

“People from the walk are always excited to see what theme we come up with,” Roper said proudly. “It’s just fun to do things together as a lab.”

Weekly lab meetings are essential to the lab’s success, Roper said. In those two hours, the professor and his students talk about projects as well as what’s going on in their lives outside of the lab. The latest in science news is discussed. A recent meeting saw Roper bring in homemade salsas for his crew.

“It’s really the glue that holds the lab together,” Roper explained. “I have usually between 10 and 12 students, and I don’t have time to meet with them individually every week. But I always get contact with them at these lab meetings.”

Roper said the traditions and creativity cultivated add freshness to the cutting-edge science executed in his lab. Discoveries are imminent.

“We have a lot of great data we’re looking to publish,” Roper said. “It should be a banner year in our lab – having fun as well as doing good research.”

Laura Hawley is a new, nontraditional graduate student who joined the lab in January. She admitted feeling intimidated at first, but Roper and his students made her comfortable, ready to conduct top-notch research. Hawley already feels – and is – an important part of the lab.

“There is an incredibly cohesive element to this laboratory. Everybody is on equal footing,” said Hawley, who is leading the developmental side of research by investigating the levels of an overexpressed protein common within individuals with Down syndrome. “It’s been a dream come true. It’s where I’ve wanted to be for a long time, and I’m loving being here.”

And she learned early on that no dissection is complete without hits from the ’80s. She’s held onto that feeling.

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