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The Right Chemistry
July 10, 2014
Studying the molecular mechanisms of basic life processes—from gene expression and protein synthesis to drug behavior and disease—allows doctors and researchers to better understand the human body and ultimately improve health.
To expose undergraduate students to the questions and tools of structural and mechanistic biology, about 25 faculty members, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and staff in the Harvard Medical School Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology have joined forces to create the BCMP Summer Scholars Program.
“Students not only spend ten weeks in the lab gaining hands-on experience in biophysical research methods, they also participate in a summer course, practice their presentation skills and attend a structural biology retreat in Cambridge,” said Piotr Sliz, an associate professor in BCMP.
Sliz and Stephen Buratowski, a professor in BCMP, co-direct the program and have students in their laboratories this summer.
Candidates had previous research experience and a serious interest in pursuing graduate studies in molecular biology. From about 90 applicants, eight BCMP Scholars were accepted into the first class. They were matched with BCMP faculty members, in whose labs they will work through August.
“The program provides a really good opportunity for our postdocs and graduate students to gain mentoring and teaching experience,” said Jason Heustis, curriculum fellow in BCMP who put in place the summer course and developed an orientation guide for students.
“It’s a whole different set of skills from doing experiments, but an important job,” said Luke Chao, a program mentor and postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Stephen Harrison, the Giovanni Armenise - Harvard Professor of Basic Biomedical Science at HMS. “I’ve found that the students’ energy invigorates my research, and I’m learning a lot from their questions,” Chao said.
After the pilot, the department will decide whether the program will run again in 2015.
“We’ll see if our laboratories benefit from the program. We’ll also start to look at whether the students go on to graduate school or otherwise accelerate their careers in structural and molecular biology,” said Sliz, who is also an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital. “We want this to be a positive experience for them and for us.”
Below are profiles of four BCMP Scholars.
Gita Bhattacharya, Harvard University
Why HMS: Since high school I’ve been super interested in Notch-Delta interactions in terms of development and regeneration in the inner ear. I wanted to do bench work this summer, and I really wanted it to be in a place that does great research in an area I had a bit of background in. Now I’m working on a protease that basically activates Notch. I love it. I don’t even notice the hours flying by.
Favorite part so far: Learning from mistakes and seeing positive results from fixing a problem might be what I enjoy most about working in a lab. Though it’s annoying to realize something could have been done better or differently, I always feel like I’ve learned a lot, and would probably think more carefully when designing my next experiment.
Future plans: I’m pretty certain I’d like to do my undergraduate thesis with the Blacklow lab. After that, I want to be a doctor. I’m interested in chronic illness and socioeconomic balances.
Christina Hansen, Oklahoma City University
Why HMS: During my phone interview, Dr. Sliz and I talked about how well my prior experience and interests matched with Stephen Harrison’s lab. Dr. Harrison is huge in this field. His name is in textbooks. It’s a rare opportunity to learn from such an esteemed researcher. Plus, I’ve always loved Boston, and I’m excited to be here in the center of academia with all these amazing people and resources.
Favorite part so far: Seeing people who love science as much as I do. Back home, when I tell people I’m going to apply for a biomedical PhD I get responses like, ‘Oh, aren’t you fancy,’ or ‘Why don’t you be a real doctor?’ Here, research is the center of everyone’s lives and I really like that.
Unexpected lesson: This is my third summer research program. The two before were valuable in getting accustomed to lab work. This one took it to the next level, to what it’s like to think as a scientist. I think that’s probably the hardest part about doing research, but it’s also the most rewarding. I’ve loved being forced to think about why I’m doing something and having to come up with questions.
Lori Kim, Northwestern University
Why HMS: I’m interested in art and wanted to find a way to combine it with biology. Reading Dr. Chou’s research papers and seeing the colorful pictures that come out of NMR [nuclear magnetic resonance] and crystallography made me think that maybe this is one way I can do it. I’m hoping by the end of my stay I’ll see pictures of beautiful, spiky proteins in their crystallized form.
Favorite part so far: The amount of trust, independence and support my mentor gives me. These proteins mean everything to him. He’s been working on them for years. But he’s letting me do protocols and purify proteins by myself. I’ve had failures, but he’s never criticized me or shut me down. I always feel free to ask him questions.
Future plans: This was my first time being introduced to structural biology. Before, I'd worked with mice and neurological diseases. I like this so much better. Thanks to the support here, I feel I can really devote myself to this research. I’m definitely planning on joining a similar structural biology lab once I return to Northwestern.
Chris Nam, Swarthmore College
Why HMS: I did an internship here last year in the Systems Biology program that introduced me to the computational side of biological research. I was also becoming interested in the application of computational techniques to pharmacology, and saw Dr. Sliz’s lab was doing work of that nature.
Why biology and computation: One of the questions that has my interest now is something Dr. Sliz is looking at from a variety of angles: protein structure determination. Methods such as X-ray crystallography produce a lot of data, noisy data, and it’s essential that we use computational methods to figure out what exactly is going on in there—what the protein looks like, what its structure is. That’s the classic application of many different modeling techniques that are emerging right now in computer science and biology.
Favorite part so far: I’m in the process of enjoying it. Maybe at the end of the summer I’ll have a favorite part. Maybe it’ll be if I get a good result!