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Professor Brit Moss Nurtures a Love of Research

In Her Lab, Professor Moss Cultivates Learning and the World’s Next Scientists and Scholars

By Jared Scott Tesler

Photography by Kim Fetrow ’96 of Kim Fetrow Photography

Brit Moss in the lab.

Ever since she was a child, Britney “Brit” Moss has been interested in astronomy, biology, chemistry and geology. In high school, a NASA summer internship spent conducting molecular biology research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison solidified her love of science.

The first in her family to pursue higher education, Moss dove in with vigor and curiosity. “When I went to college, I pursued a biochemistry degree, which enabled me to take lots of biology and chemistry courses,” recalls Moss, who graduated from Montana State University in 2004, “and I worked on a variety of research projects.”

Today, as Associate Professor of Biology and Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology (BBMB) at Whitman, Moss continues to find her heart’s work in the classroom and lab, inspiring future generations of scientists and scholars along the way. Her formative experience as a first-generation, working-class student still carries its fair share of distinct advantages, she says.

“It’s given me perseverance and the ability to forge ahead into new and challenging situations, and informs the ways in which I interact with students,” Moss says.

“I remember what it was like trying to figure out college and career without necessarily having any close family members to provide those kinds of insights, and I strive to provide guidance to all of my students—whether encouraging them to attend office hours and really get to know their professors, helping them navigate the process of finding research internships and applying to Ph.D. programs, or normalizing the fact that college is hard and research is hard, and that it’s normal to struggle and seek out support.”

Looking Deeply Inward

Before joining Whitman, Moss grew her research career in university labs—exploring potential scientific discoveries to take on a deadly threat that affects so many people and families: cancer.

Immediately after college, Moss was hired by her alma mater as a Research Assistant, tasked with completing the projects she started as an undergraduate student—from understanding mechanisms regulating tumor angiogenesis (the formation and growth of new blood vessels) to testing novel light-activated chemotherapy compounds to treat breast tumors.

Moss would go on to earn a Ph.D. in Molecular Cell Biology from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, where she contributed to the study of non-invasive imaging technologies to advance research on human health and disease under the tutelage of David Piwnica-Worms, a leader in the field who is now at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

A Day in the Life Sciences

Since joining the Whitman faculty in 2015, Moss has mentored nearly two dozen budding scientists in her research laboratory, aptly named the Moss Lab, including two former Beckman Scholars who are both graduates with BBMB degrees: Silas Miller ’21, now a Ph.D. student in cellular and molecular biology and graduate research assistant at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Austin Chiles ’22, a Cancer Research Training Award Fellow at the National Cancer Institute.

“Having a front-row seat to young people discovering and exploring their passion for science, both in the classroom and in the lab, is the most rewarding aspect of my work,” Moss says. “Receiving the invitation to join the faculty at Whitman and providing so many young scientists with their very first research experience are among my greatest professional achievements.”

And at Whitman, students don’t have to wait until graduate school to have meaningful and real-world research experiences. Moss has created undergraduate research courses and experiences, including a synthetic cell biology class, in which students complete a semester-long, inquiry-based research project related to a contemporary topic that is being investigated in the Moss Lab.

Currently, Moss and her research team are working to determine how various features are “programmed” into plants, what molecules carry out these programs, and how they may be tweaked to provide plants with new and useful traits. The primary focus of their research is on a class of plant hormones called auxins, which play a central role in the coordination of many growth, developmental and behavioral processes in plant life cycles.

“Ultimately, we hope that our research will inform the work of plant scientists aiming to breed and engineer crops to feed a growing population in the midst of a rapidly changing climate,” explains Moss, whose original contributions to her chosen field have been published in a wide range of scientific journals.

Moss’s students will certainly tell you that her passion and enthusiasm for science are always on display in her classroom and in her lab. For her part, Moss says she strives to create a “welcoming atmosphere of belonging and camaraderie among members of the research team ... pairing up students to work on distinct arms of one research project to give them experience as both collaborators working together toward a larger goal and individuals driving the progress of their own project.”

Moss says she continually receives positive feedback from former students, who share that their research experience in the Moss Lab—and the practice they had presenting their findings on campus, at conferences and in their senior theses—inspired them to go on to careers as research professors or scientists.

“One of the reasons I chose Whitman was that I could see how much the faculty in the Biology department and the BBMB program value hands-on research experiences for students, even having them built into the curriculum,” Moss says. “These research experiences are absolutely crucial for students pursuing careers in the life sciences.” 

Published on Jul 19, 2023
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