One of Fairfield University’s stand out opportunities for science students is to work closely with faculty on
their research projects. Every semester and summer the Bannow Science building is filled with students working one-on-one with faculty mentors. This past summer 11 chemistry and biochemistry students contributed to on-going research projects, gained valuable skills in the lab, and presented their findings at the American Chemical SocietyNational meeting, held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Taking advantage of research opportunities
Bayan Abunar ’14 and Molly Graffam ’13 knew from early on that they wanted to assist faculty with their research. For Abunar, a biochemistry major, this was her first time working as a research assistant, although she had planned in advance to take part in the opportunity. “At my first freshman tutoring session I met upperclassman Mariam Iftikhar ’11 and she encouraged me to look into research,” she said. Graffam, also a biochemistry major, spent the last summer and spring sessions doing research with Dr. Harper-Leatherman,assistant professor of chemistry.
The two studied the electrochemistry of self-organized structures made up of layers of the protein, cytochrome c, with Dr. Harper-Leatherman. Cytochrome c is a protein involved in the electron transport chain of mitochondria in human and animal cells.
Graffam noted that cytochrome chas been shown to be more stable to denaturation when self-organized into multi-layered structures then alone. She explained that they were running tests to learn more about the electron transfer characteristics of this protein when self-organized. It is possible that such protein self-organization may have applications in biosensors or other bioanalytical devices and understanding more about how the properties of proteins change when organized in different ways will be important for these applications. Dr. Harper-Leatherman has made substantial progress on the project while mentoring and being assisted by students since summer 2011.
The students said that they gained many new skills from the intensive research. “It’s been great to focus on one topic for an extended period of time, and we’ve learned a lot from Dr. Harper-Leatherman,” said Graffam. Abunar agreed: “The research is a lot more detailed and I’ve built on what I’ve learned during the semester.”
Their professor also appreciated working with the students. “They were very enthusiastic and fun to workth with. [In this environment] I am mentoring them as students, but by the end of the summer, they were making contributions and coming up with ideas more like colleagues or co-discoverers in the research.” In addition, Dr. Harper-Leatherman provided professional mentoring to the students by helping them hone their skills in scientific literature reading and research, scientific writing, and professional oral presentations.
Making molecules to produce a better medicine
Taylor Szupiany ’13 and Alexandria McGovern ’13 spent their summer assisting Dr. Jessica Davis, assistant professor of chemistry, in her ongoing research to produce a better medicine for people with Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation in the intestines.
Szupiany and McGovern, both biology majors, made a library of compounds and studied the interactions between TNF-Alpha and TNF-R, two protein-based molecules. The inflammation that Crohn’s causes people is believed to be caused by overproduction of TNF-Alpha. But, proteins cannot be taken as a pill, so medication has to be delivered through an IV. Dr. Davis and her students are looking for a small molecule that can be made into a pill and make treatment for Crohn’s patients easier.
Szupiany said, “IV medication is inconvenient for patients, so we’re basically trying to make a bio-available drug therapeutic that people can take in the comfort of their homes.” Dr. Davis has been working on the project for six years and in that time has employed 15 student researchers. McGovern and Szupiany have been working on the project for two years, so they were prepared for the expectations in the lab.
“Our research flows better now,” said McGovern. “At this point we’re pretty self-sufficient.” Both students plan to apply to medical school following graduation and believe that the hands-on research has helped them develop important skills that will help their applications stand out.
In addition to their work in the lab, the three also participated in the BASE Summer Science Camp, a free residential camp for high school women interested in scientific research. Campers who worked with Dr. Davis studied cancer cells while McGovern and Szupiany assisted the students in lab and acted as camp counselors outside of the lab. The highly successful program is a great opportunity for the campers and Dr. Davis and her students were happy to see the close group of campers gain exposure to sophisticated scientific research.
The Scientific Research Process
Christine Villa ’14 and Kerry Archer ’13 assisted Dr. John Miecznikowski, assistant professor of chemistry, on his research of biomimetic ligand metal catalysts. Their work consisted of making zinc compounds with the goal of developing a catalyst that is as active and efficient as enzymes that humans have in their bodies.
Dr. Miecznikowski has been working on the project for five years, and it is the first summer of research for Villa, who gained familiarity with the sophisticated instruments in Dr. Miecznikowski’s laboratory. “It’s the first time I’ve worked with these types of instruments so I’ve learned so much,” she said.
They’ve set up different reactions and used a variety of instruments to characterize the compounds including Ultra-Violet/Visible Spectrophotometry, Isotope-ratio mass spectrometry, and the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance instrument. In addition to presenting at the American Chemical Society National meeting in Philadelphia, the students will assist in writing up the results for the Journal of Biological Inorganic Chemistry and will be listed as co-authors of the research.
Villa, a biochemistry major, said that she was very pleased with her first summer of research. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I really just wanted to get my feet wet and eventually everything fell into place.” Villa plans to apply to graduate school to become a physician’s assistant and said that the experience will help her with the application process. She said, “I feel like such a pro with the instruments. It has been absolutely invaluable learning.”
Dr. Miecznikowski agreed about the benefits of hands-on experience. “Students learn how research is actually done in these positions, including coming up with ideas, literature searches, keeping a lab notebook, and setting up, and running, and analyzing reactions.”Villa said that one of the most important things she learned over the summer was the review of previous research. “It’s so important to pull from other people who’ve done research on a topic,” she explained. Her literary research consisted of using databases such as Sci-Finder Scholar to find the latest research publications. But, even with past research and their own work in the lab, things don’t always work out the way they plan. But for scientists, that’s just the beginning. “Sometimes you learn more from when things don’t work out,” said Dr. Miecznikowski.
Growing instincts in the laboratory:
Tim Jacisin ’14, a biochemistry major, and Tim Zeko ’13, a chemistry major with a math minor, assisted Dr. Matthew Kubasik, associate professor of chemistry, in his ongoing research on artificial peptide conformational dynamics.
The students helped Dr. Kubasik make new peptide molecules. They used infrared spectroscopy (shooting light at a molecule to see how much light passes through it and what wavelengths are absorbed) to gather specific information about the shapes of proteins.
“When you actually get into the lab with a professor it connects everything and helps you create a fuller picture in your head of everything you’ve learned,” said Zeko. Jacisin agreed: “I can’t even begin to describe how much I learned this summer. I’ve felt challenged intellectually and it’s much better than a regular summer job.”
The team did experience some unsuccessful experiments in the lab, but even coming up against problems helped them progress. Zeko said, “In research you keep on going and push harder and harder to get the answers you’re looking for. And you will hit walls but you have to just push through them. It really makes you grow as a chemist.”
Jacisin said, “You’re doing work that no one else has done before and you want to push the limits of scientific knowledge.”
Dr. Kubasik said, “I love working with these two students. We figure things out and are getting answers to things that no one else knows. The molecule that we’re making is the world’s supply of that molecule. It’s found in our lab and nowhere else.”
Having the world’s supply does mean that they are in uncharted territory. While attempting to make a hexamer, the chemical transformations were no longer succeeding. The students and Dr. Kubasik were initially frustrated but then came up with an experiment to solve the problem. They eventually posited that water was interfering with their chemistry and going forward they would need to make better efforts to exclude it from their reactions.
Jacisin said, “It was frustrating initially, but we just took a breath and tried to figure out small ways to modify the test and figure out the problem.” Zeko agreed. “If you make too many changes you don’t know what specifically needed to be changed.”
Their efforts were not lost to Dr. Kubasik who appreciated their attention to detail and their progression over the summer. “I rely on the growing instincts of my students to make the best possible choices every day,” he said. Noting that overcoming challenges is difficult for any scientist, he said that both students did a great job of imagining what was happening at the microscopic level that would affect what they were seeing at the macroscopic level.
Zeko plans to apply to graduate programs in chemistry following his senior year while Jacisin has another year at Fairfield. His summer work was supported through a new scholarship, the Hardiman Scholars Program, which provides funds to students who have developed specific research projects.
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