Chemistry Summer Research Leads to Collaboration, Opportunities

Four students who spent the summer working in Associate Professor of Chemistry Liliya Yatsunyk’s research lab had the unique opportunity to meet, collaborate, and present their research to world-leading experts in their research field.

Thanks to the funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Provost's Office, the four students - Sayed Malawi ’18, Barrett Powell ’18, Amber Sheth ’18, and Deondre Jordan ‘19 - and Yatsunyk traveled to Louisville, Ky., were able to visit the lab of Brad Chaires at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center (JGBCC). A collaborator and colleague of Yatsunyk, Chaires and his co-workers are leading experts in the field of unusual DNA structures called G-quadruplexes, which are the focus of Yatsunyk’s lab at the College.

Over the course of two days, each member of Yatsunyk's lab presented their summer research results to the JGBCC team and fielded questions about the methodology, analysis, and implications of the work. The research discussion was followed by workshop-style presentations from the Louisville team about the principles, instrumentation, data acquisition, processing, and interpretation for key biophysical methodologies: analytical ultracentrifugation, isothermal titration calorimetry, molecular modeling, circular dichroism, and stopped flow kinetics. The presentations concluded with hands-on practical work guided by Chaires' team using samples that the students prepared and brought with them from their lab.

The presentations and associated experiments in Louisville, which Chaires lightheartedly termed a “Biophysical Bootcamp,” left quite a mark on Yatsunyk’s students.

“I’m excited to bring back the knowledge I obtained in Louisville,” says Jordan, a prospective chemistry major from Chester, Pa. “We haven’t been able to make use of analytical ultracentrifugation before, but now we have the skill set to run experiments and analyze data, opening up a whole new realm of questions we can ask and answer.” He also notes that visiting the JGBCC lab and seeing its research capabilities firsthand has him considering a path in medical research through an M.D./Ph.D. program.

Malawi, an honors chemistry major and computer science minor from McLean, Va., was also enthused about the two-day meeting. “I’ve been working on a collaborative project between our lab and Dr. Chaires’,” he says, “and it was really rewarding to talk the data over with him in person and get his input on what I had done, and what we should do to finish the project".

The impact also extended outside the traditional confines of the Science Center. Amber Sheth ’18, a Spanish major and biology minor from Rhinelander, Wis., who wanted to explore the world of research this past summer commented that “as a pre-med student, I tend to focus on the results of the hard work that goes into drug design and curing diseases. It was fascinating to learn about some of the methodology involved in that work itself, which is used by scientists to help design potential drug candidates.”

Yatsunyk was overjoyed by the experience and the knowledge her students acquired. “The trip to Louisville was a transforming experience for my students," she says. "They presented and defended their work, they participated in the discussions, and ran experiments alongside highly qualified scientists. The most important message however, was of scientific collaboration and of an excitement for scientific discovery. Throughout our visit, I could not stop feeling proud about my students, their humanity, motivation, and scientific accomplishments.”

Following the trip, the lab's summer research culminated with presentations at the 252nd National American Chemical Society Meeting, recently held in Philadelphia. The data from Louisville made its way into oral presentations from Yatsunyk and Powell on a refined model of the DNA structure implicated in cancer. Powell was one of a few undergraduates to give an oral presentation at this national conference, while Malawi and Jordan presented posters. Presenting at the national meeting and attending talks helped students to see their work in perspective.

"The students learned that their small research effort cumulatively leads to great advances in sciences and to the betterment of our society," says Yatsunyk. "That is why we do chemistry in our lab."