The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) Department is fortunate to have a multitude of exceptional graduate students within its Biochemistry, Microbiology and Molecular Biology (BMMB) Program dedicated to developing their research and teaching skills. Our students are making discoveries and generating independent knowledge through their research within our labs.
Meet Samantha (Sam) Hartmann, a graduate student working towards her Ph.D. in the BMMB Program. For as long as she can remember, Sam has had an aptitude for asking why, and a curiosity for discovering how things work. Growing up she always had the support of many great teachers from elementary to high school, but that’s not where her drive to succeed in science comes from. “I feel that my drive towards science comes more from those who doubted my abilities growing up than from those who actively pushed me towards science,” she says.
Regardless of its origins, Sam’s drive to pursue scientific discovery ultimately led her to attend East Stroudsburg University where she majored in biochemistry and chemical biotechnology. Looking back at her time in East Stroudsburg, Sam credits T. Michelle Jones-Wilson, Department Chair and Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and William Loffredo, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, for helping to shape her undergraduate career. Because of the University’s relatively small biochemistry program, Sam had many classes with the two professors. “They both have a deep passion for educating and really pushed us all to be our best and they always wanted us all to succeed,” Sam said. “They always went above and beyond for their students and it really made for a great experience.”
When Sam interviewed for graduate school at Penn State she knew that it was the right place for her. “During all of my interactions the faculty seemed so excited and passionate about their research and all the graduate students were really nice and all seemed to be genuinely happy,” said Sam. She chose to attend Penn State not only because of the BMMB Program, but also because of the University’s size and more rural setting. “Penn State gave me the opportunity to go to a big school, and still be surrounded by a lot of nature,” said Sam.
Currently Sam works in the Hafenstein Laboratory mentored by Susan Hafenstein, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The Hafenstein Laboratory uses a structural approach to learn more about viral infectivity, tropism, evolution and pathogenicity. Because of its significant threat to human health, Sam’s research specifically focuses on papillomavirus.
Most people know about Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and have heard of the Guardasil vaccine that prevents infection, but what many don't know is that the vaccine is 9-valent, meaning it only protects against 9 different types of HPV. Currently there have been over 100 different types of HPV identified, some of which are cancer-causing, and each currently having to be integrated into the vaccine individually.
The primary focus of Sam’s research utilizes a technique called cryogenic electron microscopy, or cryo EM, to learn about virus structure. Structure allows her to identify a region of the virus that is highly conserved across all types of HPV in the hopes of finding a vaccine target that will protect against infection of all types of HPV. Even with the current HPV vaccine there are over 250,000 HPV associated deaths annually. HPV causes over 90% of anal and cervical cancer, 70% of vaginal, vulvar and orphorangeal cancers, and 60% of penile cancers. “Although we have a vaccine, we definitely have room for improvement and HPV is still a major health concern that we have many unanswered questions about,” says Sam.
Because of her interest in virus’, and the fact that there is still much to be discovered with regards to virus’, Sam chose to pursue the route of structural virology. “Structure allows us to paint a picture of how these viruses work,” says Sam. “I really enjoy structural virology because we have the ability to deeply inspect these viruses and allow their structure to tell us the story of how they function.” Once scientist learn how a virus functions, its structure then allows scientist the ability to identify weaknesses and ways that we can target the virus with treatments and vaccines.
Outside of the laboratory, Sam enjoys staying active and is involved in softball, soccer, and volleyball leagues within the State College area. On days when the Central Pennsylvania weather is cooperative, you can also catch Sam outside of the Millennium Science Complex where several researchers gather to play soccer once a week. Playing sports isn’t something that’s new to Sam. “I played a lot of sports growing up,” says Sam. “When I was younger, I played soccer and did competitive gymnastics, and through my teenage years I mainly played field hockey and softball.”
As mentioned previously, regarding her decision to come to Penn State, Sam has a passion for nature and the great outdoors. Her passion comes from her childhood, growing up along the Delaware River, and at the base of the Appalachian Mountains. Her interests include everything from rafting and kayaking to hiking and backpacking.
Sam always liked to hike as a child, but it wasn’t until high school that she went on her first backpacking excursion. “My high school actually had an exclusive field trip that was only for 10 students a year to go on a three-day backpacking trip,” she said. “I was lucky enough to participate both my junior and senior year of high school, and that is really when I fell in love with it.”
Now, Sam goes on at least one backpacking adventure a year, taking the opportunity to disconnect from all technology and gain new perspective. “I started taking these annual trips because I really enjoy being able to disconnect,” She says. “So many people are afraid to leave their cell phone or miss a day of social media.” Sam typically goes on these adventures with at least one other person but has also gone with a group as large as fifteen people. “I just think it’s nice to get away and really see beyond the fast pace, tech crazed everyday life,” she says.
Sam has backpacked on many trips across Eastern and Central Pennsylvania and has even explored the Smokey Mountains as well as the Grand Canyon. “I’ve been trying to slowly expand where my trips are every year,” she says. Sam views her adventures as resetting with nature. “When you take away all the technology and distractions of everyday life you can really start to see the beauty that nature has to offer,” said Sam. “Seeing the views from the mountains definitely makes you feel small and regain a sense of perspective.”
Sam encourages everyone to find their opportunity to slow down, disconnect, and regain perspective in their lives. The answer is different each person, but for Sam the answer is clear. “After a day on the trail and camping you realize how peaceful it is to be away from everything,” she says. “To have no schedule and to just wake up with the sunrise, hike all day, then go to sleep when the sunsets is just really peaceful.”
Sam is one of our many graduate students who, through hard work and dedication, has found success within the laboratory. Although, it’s Sam’s activities outside of the laboratory, and her ability to search out ways for her to maintain a work-life balance, that truly sets her apart. Her constant desire to seek and gain perspective is an asset to the Department and will help propel her throughout her career. Well done Sam! We Are Penn State!