What kinds of PIs become Cottrell Scholars? We heard last week from Dr. Silivia Ronco on the program itself and from Dr. Kathryn Haas on her journey to proposal writing success. This week we have stories from two more successful PIs – and the message couldn’t be clearer. Cottrell Scholars are sold-out on the mission of undergraduate research!
~Dr. John Antos, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, WWU
It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute to the CUR Chemistry blog, and to share a bit about myself and our ongoing work at Western Washington University (WWU). I’ve been an assistant professor in the WWU Department of Chemistry since 2012. While life as a chemistry professor now feels like a great fit, it wasn’t that long ago that a career in chemistry wasn’t even on my radar. In fact, as a freshman at The Ohio State University I initially had my sights set on veterinary school. However, enrollment in my first organic chemistry course during my sophomore year completely changed my future plans. Fascinated by the details of organic structure and reactivity (and with the guidance and encouragement of my professors!), I soon switched my major to chemistry and got involved with research in the lab of chemistry professor Rob Coleman. From that point I really haven’t looked back. After graduating from Ohio State, I went on to earn a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley (with Prof. Matthew Francis) and completed a post-doc at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research (with Prof. Hidde Ploegh). After a brief stint in the biotech industry, I happily returned to academics as an assistant professor at WWU.
In addition to a commitment to outstanding undergraduate education in the classroom, my home department of chemistry also has a vibrant research culture, and participation in undergraduate research has become a hallmark of the WWU experience for our undergrads.
WWU is an amazing place to be a chemist. The university is located in Bellingham, WA in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. We’re a relatively large PUI (~15,000 students) and currently graduate nearly 80 chemistry and biochemistry majors per year. In addition to a commitment to outstanding undergraduate education in the classroom, my home department of chemistry also has a vibrant research culture, and participation in undergraduate research has become a hallmark of the WWU experience for our undergrads. In my group, current projects involve facets of organic chemistry, biochemistry, and molecular biology. We study a class of bacterial enzymes called sortases that are intriguing both as targets for the development of new antibiotics and also as tools for protein engineering. With regard to protein engineering, sortases are able to catalyze highly selective amide bond exchange reactions between proteins and/or peptides. We’re focused on both understanding this enzyme-catalyzed chemistry, and also leveraging this technology as a means to construct proteins with unique properties that don’t exist in nature. Not only do these projects represent an important area for protein chemistry, they also provide a great interdisciplinary training environment for undergrads, who get experience in everything from organic synthesis to recombinant protein expression and purification.
Given the emphasis on both teaching and research at WWU, it was quite a thrill to be named a 2016 Cottrell Scholar (CS) by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. This award comes at a great time, and gives us the resources to push our research and education programs into exciting new territory. From the research end, CS funding has allowed us to initiate a new collaborative project with my WWU colleagues focused on the structural characterization of certain sortases. In terms of education, the centerpiece of my plan for the CS award period is the development of a research based laboratory experience for undergraduate organic chemistry students. Over the course of several weeks, students in one of our organic laboratory classes will have the chance to design, synthesize, and ultimately test the ability of small organic molecules to inhibit sortases implicated in a range of bacterial infections. Undergraduate students in the class will really be the drivers of this project, and I can’t wait to see how this project evolves and what discoveries our students will make!
…the centerpiece of my plan for the CS award period is the development of a research based laboratory experience for undergraduate organic chemistry students.
Of course, another great aspect of the CS award is that it lets me bring more students into my research lab. At a PUI like WWU, I’m frequently reminded of the impact that undergraduate research had on my career. One of the most satisfying aspects of my job is providing that same opportunity for WWU students, and I can’t thank Research Corporation enough for helping me make that possible.
I grew up in Seattle, majored in Biochemistry at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, got my PhD at MIT in Boston, MA, and did a postdoc at the NIH in Bethesda, MD. Now I am an assistant professor in the Chemistry Department at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. So science has taken me all over the country! At UW Oshkosh, I teach Introductory Biochemistry, Advanced Biochemistry, Biochemistry Lab, and also serve as an instructor for General Chemistry I and II discussion and lab sections (since, being a PUI, we do not have graduate students or TA’s here).
My overarching research interest is how cells sense, respond, and adapt to changes in their environment by regulating gene expression and protein activity. This was not apparent to me as I started out, but I have come to see this underlying theme as I pursued various research directions. I also love all things DNA and RNA! As an undergrad, I worked in labs studying cell cycle regulation in yeast and RNA polymerase regulation in E. coli. In grad school, I studied DNA polymerases involved in DNA repair and mutagenesis in yeast, which is a single-cell eukaryote (and therefore relevant to cancer) but basically like a bacteria in terms of its ability to be understood robustly at the molecular and biochemical level. In my postdoc, I went backwards in evolution to studying bacteria, specifically the mechanisms of novel regulatory RNAs (the bacterial equivalents of siRNAs and miRNAs). This work unexpectedly led to discovering two new genes involved in manganese homeostasis in E. coli. In my own lab, we are now focusing on the molecular mechanisms of these two proteins.
Despite the fact that I never anticipated studying the biochemistry of metal homeostasis, it is a fascinating topic that is very relevant to stress responses, as concentrations of metals (like most nutrients) can vary widely in different environments. Therefore, cells need to be able to detect and respond to various metal levels to survive as conditions change. We specifically study manganese (Mn), which is a trace nutrient that is required for viability of organisms from bacteria to humans. Little is known about the intracellular trafficking and use of Mn, even in the model bacterium E. coli. Until recently, only two genes contributing to Mn homeostasis were known in E. coli. We have shown that two proteins of previously unknown function act in Mn homeostasis, and we are currently working to characterize the structure and function of these two proteins.
It has been a tremendous honor to be selected as a Cottrell Scholar…Equally meaningful is the ability to be part of a community of teacher-scholars interested in high quality pedagogical practices, mentoring students, and excellence in research.
It has been a tremendous honor to be selected as a Cottrell Scholar. The funds will be invaluable to carrying out the research and educational goals that I proposed. Equally meaningful is the ability to be part of a community of teacher-scholars interested in high quality pedagogical practices, mentoring students, and excellence in research. Many faculty members at PUI’s are committed to undergraduate research and improving learning in the classroom and my department is no exception, but it can be challenging to meet others outside of one’s institution. The Cottrell Scholar program is an excellent opportunity to meet others interested in best practices in teaching and mentoring students, and I am excited to learn from them and use the energy to contribute to science and teaching myself.
For details on preparing a Cottrell Scholar application visit: http://rescorp.org/cottrell-scholars