Putting Theory into Practice

Putting Theory into Practice by Daniel Pak

Daniel Pak

Daniel Pak '12 is a biology major and chemistry and public policy minor from Mill Creek, Wash. He recently presented his work at the seventh annual Undergraduate Science Research Symposium at Haverford College. Later this month, he will present again at the Sigma Xi research poster session in the Science Center Commons. Write to him at dpak2@swarthmore.edu.

One of the great things about Swarthmore is that you can do all kinds of research literally anywhere and get paid for it! This past summer, I had the amazing opportunity to intern in the lab of Professor of Microbiology John Leigh '76 at the University of Washington (UW), not far from my hometown. (Fun fact: currently, Phyllis Wise '67 is the first woman and the first Asian-American to serve as UW president).

The Leigh Lab studies the complex metabolism of Methanococcus maripaludis, a microorganism that converts hydrogen and carbon dioxide into methane to produce energy. It may not sound too interesting at first, but it really is miraculous when you think about how a tiny organism produces energy and sustains life.

Before I discuss more about my research project though, let me explain the steps I took to get there. The summer after my freshman year, I used the College's alumni directory to find Associate Professor of Global Health Jaisri Lingappa '79 (also at UW) to intern in her virology lab, where I studied the Venezuelan Encephalitis Equine Virus, a mosquito-borne viral disease. That was my first research internship and it was intellectually exciting and stimulating to apply the concepts I learned in intro biology and organic chemistry to graduate-level research.

"It was great to have Daniel in the lab for the summer," says John Leigh '71. "He became familiar with our research and accomplished a key part of a project. By the end of the summer, he was teaching another visiting student!"

I used the directory again to find John Leigh and his lab. It's an excellent tool to find internships and opportunities and alumni are usually more than happy to take you in. The Swarthmore community is really tight and alums tend to view current students as a cut above students from other schools. There is an immediate sense of trust and connection!

But summer research internships aren't the only things I've found at Swarthmore. I also found generous grants that funded my research and subsidized my costs. These grants are available so you don't have to take on another summer job. With the recommendation of Assistant Professor of Inorganic Chemistry Lilya Yatsunyk, I was awarded the Norman Meinkoth Premedical Research Fellowship, funded by Marc Weksler '58 and Babette Weksler '58. So, even before this summer began, I was set and ready to roll!

My research mentor in the Leigh Lab was Thomas Lie, a post-doctoral researcher from Singapore. He also graduated from a liberal arts college, so he understood the kind of educational environment that I came from. In one word, Thomas was a superb mentor. He really helped me to solidify my understanding of biological concepts in a research setting. He was patient and thoughtful and reminded me of the professors at Swarthmore that invest time in their students and care about their learning.

University of Washington Interim President Phyllis Wise '67, post-doctoral researcher Thomas Lie, and microbiologist John Leigh '71. Lie says Daniel "exhibited the skills and enthusiasm that would make any graduate student envious!"

As I mentioned, the Leigh Lab studies M. maripaludis, an anaerobic organism, meaning it dies when it is exposed to oxygen. So to work with it, I had to learn a variety of anaerobic techniques. The lab has special anaerobic chambers that ensure that essentially no oxygen enters the hood. I also learned how to properly work with various gases and lethal solutions. There are not that many labs that focus on anaerobic organisms, so working with M. maripaludis was truly a rare, unique opportunity.

Essentially, my work in the lab helped verify a key step of the metabolic pathway that produces methane. More work remains, but I feel confident I contributed in a small but meaningful way to understanding it.


Daniel worked with a system, shown here, that anaerobically adds gases and solutions into tube cultures.

In the Leigh Lab, I also had the unexpected opportunity to teach. I mentored Varun, a high school student who, despite having a limited background in science, completed a short but successful research project. By helping him understand scientific concepts such as what a knockout is and how to set up a polymerase chain reaction, I gained a more confident understanding of these essential concepts.

Finally, my most memorable (and painful?) experience was on the second to last day of my internship when I did an overnight for my 50-hour growth curve of the hcgD mutant. It felt like a rite of passage for a scientist to not sleep and stay awake from midnight to dawn for the Archaea microorganisms to grow. But it was fun and a great culmination of my time there.

Daniel with research scientist

Daniel with research scientist June Burn on his last day.

From my past two summer internships, I learned about the "culture" in a research lab, including what the life of a scientist is like and about lab etiquette and safety. I also formed great friendships with lab members and learned how to work as a research team. There are many things you learn by doing an internship, so I strongly encourage underclassmen to pursue internships related to careers that they are interested in.

Swarthmore gave me the opportunity to do Ph.D.-level research as an undergraduate at one of the best research institutions in the world. I applied the lessons and concepts I learned in my classes to real research that actually gets published in major journals. My internship this summer also helped me to solidify my understanding of concepts, taught me how to think critically and how to approach an issue, and provided me with an important network of research scientists.

It's just amazing how Swarthmore can have such a gigantic presence 3,000 miles away in Seattle. All I can say is, "WOW!"

Title graphic: Electron micrograph of an M. maripaludis cell showing the flagellar bundles (from WB Whitman, University of Georgia).