Six student scientists bring protein research to national lab, conference
Six UW-La Crosse biochemistry students say a trip to a national research lab and conference this spring validated how much they’ve learned in their field.
Yet walking into Argonne National Laboratory where scientists and engineers from across the globe accelerate particles to near the speed of light and use advanced x-ray generating machines to look at objects about 5 million times smaller than a grain of salt, the UWL students were excited about everything they don’t yet know.
“It’s kind of reassuring that there will always be something you can do in this field,” says UWL senior Danielle Sweeting.
Undergraduate student researchers in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry presented their research about the structures and functions of proteins during the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) Annual Meeting 2017 in Chicago. They also toured Argonne National Laboratory, the largest national laboratory in the Midwest, located near Chicago that had the high-tech equipment to take x-ray images of the crystallized proteins they are studying.
Sweeting and Madeline Brunner, another undergraduate researcher, are examining a protein that destroys red blood cells which could have implications for diseases caused by incorrect protein folding such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Students Timothy Davie and Damien Rasmussen are researching a protein found in Salmonella during an infection which could help scientists better understand how to stop the bacterium that causes about one million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. each year. Michael Scheidt and Megan Marlowe are trying to determine the function of a protein from Epstein-Barr Virus, a virus associated with human cancers.
Basudeb Bhattacharyya, UWL associate lecturer in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, says seeing students’ fascination with science during the trip brought him back to his own start in the field. Yet, the scope of what UWL students have been able to do as undergraduate researchers has far surpassed his own undergraduate experience, he says.
Bhattacharyya is grateful for continued collaboration with his graduate school advisor James Keck, professor in the Department of Biomolecular Chemistry and associate dean for Basic Sciences in the School of Medicine and Public Health at UW-Madison, who helped the UWL group gain access to the national lab.
Students were able to experience world-class science in a hands-on way while understanding how data they are using to analyze their protein structures was collected, says John May, UWL assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry.
“To see science at that scale was very exciting for me as an educator,” he says.
In addition to presenting their research, students heard lectures about the latest discoveries in biochemistry and molecular biology. Brunner attended a lecture on what happens biochemically during aging leading to traditional signs such as memory loss. She says hearing high-impact research like this reinforced her decision to continue studying biochemistry in graduate school.
“It’s inspiring to know that you could one day make an impact like that,” she says.
Davie says the entire experience made him realize that, as an undergraduate researcher, he is already a scientist.
“As an undergrad, I never really thought of it that way,” he says. “To be part of that community was really awesome.”