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Students Share DNA Research with Experts in Their Field

students and professors sitting around a tale

Barrett Powell '18 (left) and Deondre Jordan '19 (top right) discuss the details of future publication with their collaborators, John Trent and Brad Chaires from the University of Louisville.


At the end of May, filled with nervous excitement, Deondre Jordan ’19 and Barrett Powell ’18 boarded a plane to Prague. It was not for leisurely summer travel. The honors chemistry majors were traveling to the 6th International Meeting on Quadruplex Nucleic Acids with support from the Provost's Office and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Jordan, an S3P Scholar from Chester, Pa., and Powell, from Unionville, Pa., have both conducted research with Swarthmore’s Chemistry Department for over a year. Working in Associate Professor Liliya Yatsunyk’s lab, the two have been researching unusual DNA structures implicated in cancer. Specifically, their work focuses on identifying ways to target these structures with small molecules, which could serve as novel pharmaceuticals.

Jordan and Powell presented their research at a poster session, which allowed the students to engage in a discussion of their work with leading experts in the DNA field. According to Jordan and Powell, the most challenging part of the poster session was a 90-second flash presentation during which each presenter had to speak in front of the entire conference body. While this part was the most stressful, it was also the most rewarding.

“Part of our research and hypothesis is based on the work of Dr. Plavec, the head of the Slovenian NMR center, whose papers I read very closely,” Jordan explains. “During the poster session, Dr. Plavec himself came to see my poster. I showed him the results of my investigation, shared with him my conclusions, and asked about his thoughts. It was a really neat moment.” Plavec later congratulated the students on the “excellent impression” they gave during their poster session.

Over the course of four days, Jordan and Powell also attended lectures by the world’s leading scientists in the field of unusual DNA structures. Themes included structural investigation, interactions with small molecules, biological cellular studies, DNA and nanotechnology. Both Jordan and Powell will take Yatsunyk's seminar on supramolecular chemistry this fall, so they found the day on DNA and nanotechnology most memorable. Scientists used traditional duplex DNA combined with unusual DNA structures to build novel nanomachines entirely out of DNA. These included microscopic tweezers, locked boxes with promise for targeted drug delivery, and remarkably sensitive detectors for various ions and DNA sequences.

Following the conference, Jordan and Powell briefly toured Prague with University of Louisville Professors Brad Chaires and John Trent, whom they had met and worked with the summer prior. “It was a surreal experience,” noted Powell, “being in a city thousands of miles from home, learning science, and exploring the city culture with the brightest minds in the field on equal footing.”

Jordan and Powell will spend 10 weeks this summer continuing their research in Yatsunyk’s laboratory. In August, they will be joined by the rest of her group to present at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in Washington, DC. Powell and Jordan will both give talks at the meeting.  


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