Interns in innovation
Interns play leading roles in chemistry innovationsStory and photos by Laura Hancock, University Advancement
LA GRANDE, Ore. August 30, 2016 – Five area students are interning with faculty in Eastern Oregon University’s chemistry-biochemistry program this summer and their research is yielding impressive – possibly even breakthrough – results.
EOU students Callie Norman, of La Grande, and Brianna Mees, of Boring, have a front-row seat to new chemistry with the discovery of a molecule that may interact differently with heme proteins.
Heme is a derivative of hemoglobin, and everything from blood pressure regulation to neuron activity is connected to how heme proteins bind with gases in the body.
Colin Andrew, professor of chemistry, is heading up the research funded by a National Science Foundation grant. He’s been studying heme proteins for about 15 years, but the molecule has potential to shed new light on the project.
“We’re learning from scratch how to see the molecule, defining what the species looks like and how it reacts,” Andrew explained. “We might be a step closer to finding out how proteins interact.”
At first, Andrew wasn’t sure if it was possible to study the molecule due to its instability, which presents a very short life cycle for observation. It survives for about a minute after forming, but his team took the challenge and ran with it.
“It’s been productive and this is going to be very important,” Andrew said. “I think EOU may be the only place where this is being studied. This is a whole area of heme protein chemistry that is totally new.”
Mees is studying molecular biology and Norman is a chemistry-biochemistry major. They enjoy a great deal of freedom working in Andrew’s lab, and that hands-on experience will prove to be a big benefit for Norman when she applies to graduate school.
Mees is considering a future career in physical therapy or sports medicine and is using the research as an opportunity to further explore these fields.
“They performed all of the experiments and are completely accomplished in using the equipment,” Andrew said. “I’ve been amazed at how quickly they picked things up.”
Norman has become an expert operating in the anaerobic environment required for handling protein samples. The machine lovingly dubbed the “glove box” is where she spends a lot of time running experiments.
The instruments feed directly to a computer where Mees monitors the results.
“Working on something new is very exciting and the timing is great to be involved in this groundbreaking work,” Norman said.
When studying a molecule, there are a lot of small changes to observe and Mees appreciates the detail.
“Analyzing the effects of adding just one microliter to the sample can change the spectrum so much,” she said. “It’s really cool to watch the colors change.”
These fluctuations are recorded using a spectrometer. The discovery will be studied further at Oregon Health & Science University later this month, when Andrew and his students will attempt to recreate their experiments and effectively freeze the molecule.
“The work will continue and I anticipate the results will be published fairly quickly,” Andrew said.
Another project with potential for far-reaching results saw advances this summer through the work of three additional interns led by Anna Cavinato, professor of chemistry.
Gabby Rodriguez, of La Grande, and Anna Harris and Brian Mandella, both of Pendleton, spent the last several weeks sequencing artificial DNA to isolate specific strands that bind to surface proteins in bacteria.
Creating a biosensor is the end goal, which organizations like the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife could deploy easily in the field and have a major impact on salmon preservation efforts. Capturing a female and harvesting her eggs for testing is the most common way to diagnose many diseases, but the team at EOU is working to change that.
“Our work could replace current processes and create a non-lethal, non-invasive method of detecting bacteria in water,” Mandella said.
The students may have brought the project closer to a solution after being introduced to a new method utilizing graphene oxide – a composite of carbon and oxygen – that simplifies the experiments. The addition of a NanoDrop spectrophotometer is also aiding the research.
“The students have been working independently, running experiments from three identified pools of DNA,” Cavinato explained.
As Cavinato’s research assistant, Mandella is at home in the second floor lab of EOU’s Science Center.
“I really enjoy the molecular biology aspect of this project,” the chemistry-biochemistry major said. “Culturing bacteria is so cool.”
Mandella’s position is funded by a grant from the Wildhorse Foundation and he will continue working with Cavinato in the coming academic year.
Rodriguez’s eight-week internship is made possible by Project SEED with matching funds from the Richland Section of the American Chemical Society. She joins more than 400 other students placed by the program in academic or industrial labs across the country.
Cavinato, the chair of Project SEED, said Eastern and the University of Portland are the only institutions in Oregon hosting these interns over the summer.
For Rodriguez, an incoming junior at La Grande High School, the freedom to explore her interest in biology has been the most enjoyable part of her time at EOU.
“It’s really fun to make the gels and be independent in the lab,” Rodriguez said of the congealed substance used in gel electrophoresis, a process that separates DNA strands.
“When the gels are working properly it provides us with a valuable checkpoint for the research and it’s really satisfying to see the results,” Harris added.
Harris sought out Cavinato’s project to gain post-baccalaureate research experience for her grad school resume. She completed a biology degree earlier this year from Smith College, a private liberal arts college for women in Massachusetts. Her internship at EOU is funded by a grant from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation’s Education Department.
For more information about EOU’s chemistry-biochemistry program visit www.eou.edu/chem.