Several undergraduate students within the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) have been selected to receive 2020 Erickson Discovery Grants. The Rodney A. Erickson Discovery Grant Program, named in honor of Penn State's seventeenth President, supports undergraduate student engagement in original research, scholarship, and creative work under the direct supervision of a faculty member. Erickson Discovery Grants, each in the amount of $3,500, are directed to student-initiated projects in the arts, engineering, humanities, sciences, and social sciences that provide experience in all facets of the research, scholarship, or creative processes.
Read more about the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s recipients of a 2020 Erickson Discovery Grant below:
Julia Cipparulo, a graduate of Hillsborough High School, New Jersey, originally chose to study biochemistry in order to pursue a career as a scientist researching gene regulation as it relates to cancer. However, her interest shifted to neuroscience after she discovered it to be her favorite subject among a full course load. “I have had firsthand experiences with mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD, and as a result, I have a natural curiosity towards them,” said Cipparulo. This lead Cipparulo to join the laboratory of Bernhard Luscher, professor of biology, biochemistry and molecular biology, and psychiatry. Luscher’s laboratory is in the Center for Molecular Investigations of Neurological Disorders and investigates stressed-based psychiatric disorders, as well as their treatment.
Within the Luscher laboratory Cipparulo investigates genes that may be implicated in Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and antidepressant drug action. She does this by measuring changes in gene expression in GABAergic neurons of chronic stress exposed mice. GABAergic neurons are important in regulating MDD because they produce the neurotransmitter GABA, and reduced levels of GABA in certain brain regions have been observed in humans with MDD and in mice exposed to chronic stress. Because MDD is a stress-based disorder, chronic predictable stress causes mice to display symptoms similar to that of MDD in humans (ex. loss of pleasure-seeking behavior).
Utilizing a set of mice that have been genetically engineered to become resistant to developing MDD-like behaviors, she hopes to also discover genes that contribute to stress resilience. She believes that genes that are affected by stress in normal mice, but unaltered in stress resilient mice, serve as candidates for development of novel antidepressant therapies.
Owen Courtney, a graduate of Mechanicsburg Area High School, Pennsylvania, has always had an interest and aptitude for both biology and chemistry. He chose to study biochemistry and molecular biology because he believed it would provide him the opportunity to have the best of both worlds.
Courtney is an undergraduate researcher, working under the guidance of associate research professor Emily Bell, and has been in this role since September of 2019. His research examines how alterations in mitochondrial function impact the migration of cancer cells through challenging physical environments that mimic conditions within the body. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control. The majority of death in cancer patients involves a process called metastasis, which is the migration of tumor cells throughout the body and tumor growth at new sites. Cell movement requires the expense of large amounts of energy, and Courtney predicts that mitochondrial energy generation will prove critical to fueling cell motility. He will investigate mitochondrial energy generation’s role in cell movement by using cells that have been modified to have defective mitochondria. Courtney plans to transfer functional mitochondria into the cells containing defective mitochondria and monitor the restoration of mitochondrial activity and the movement of cells through different environments.
Lydia Jordache is a graduate of Brandywine Heights Highschool, in Reading Pennsylvania. “I'm lucky that the major I selected first ended up being the best one for me,” said Jordache. She has always enjoyed learning about disease, but it wasn't until she decided to pursue a degree in microbiology that she was introduced to the larger role microbiology plays in the world, beyond just disease. “Microbes are involved in every part of life (and death), and yet there is still so much we don't know,” said Jordache. “I'm excited to be entering a field with so many unknowns!”
Jordache is currently an undergraduate researcher under the mentorship of Emily Weinert, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology. There her research investigates the role of 2’, 3’ – cyclic nucleotide monophosphates (cNMPs) in bacteria. cNMPs, known to be produced as a result of the degradation of RNA, are produced by, and within, many bacteria, as well as eukaryotes.
Existing research suggests that cNMPs are involved in cellular stress response, such as when an organism experiences an injury or is under poor environmental conditions. Although how cNMPs are used in bacteria is still unclear, Jordache plans to investigate the process across many different bacteria types in order to create potential models detailing their purpose.
Thomas Starr is a graduate of Kiski Area High School, in Leechburg Pennsylvania, and is currently pursuing his degree in the molecular and cell biology option of biochemistry and molecular biology. His aspiration has always been to one day become a doctor, but he admits that he was not overly certain on what choice of major would be best suited for him. He had found his biology and chemistry courses in high school to be fascinating but wasn’t sure what to expect when he chose to pursue his degree in biochemistry and molecular biology. “Once I started taking classes, I knew BMB was the major for me,” said Starr. “We are such amazing machines! As I have continued on in this major, I have also found a growing excitement for a career in the medical field.”
Since the beginning of the fall 2019 semester Starr has conducted his undergraduate research in the laboratory of associate professor of biology, Charles Anderson. Starr’s research studies the kinetics of the enzyme cellulase on its substrate cellulose. Cellulose is a major component in the cell wall of plants, as well as one of the most abundant sources for potential biofuel production available. Cellulose is converted into its more usable form of energy though a degradation process initiated by the cellulase enzyme. Currently this process is far too costly for the large-scale production of usable energy, due to the tendency of the degradation process to stall. Investigating the mechanisms by which cellulase degrades cellulose, as well as the factors that cause the process’s inefficiencies, would provide researchers valuable insight on ways this process could be improved.
Starr’s is analyzing how the cellulase activity is affected in the presence of possible inhibitors of this process. Once he has completed characterizing the inhibiting factors, he plans to identify ways to alleviate these inhibitory effects by testing cellulase with other various cellulose degrading enzymes. Starr’s research will lead to a better understanding of why cellulase is inhibited during the degradation process and will identify other enzymes crucial to the cellulose degradation process.
Carolyn Telfer, a graduate of Windber Area High School, in Windber Pennsylvania, was inspired to pursue a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology by the movie “Jurassic World.” “I was fascinated by their explanation of genetically modifying the I-Rex,” said Telfer. After arriving at Penn State’s University Park Campus, and after taking several different courses, she found that her interest in biochemistry was overshadowed by her passion for chemistry. She altered her course a little and changed her major to chemistry in spring of 2020. “The lab experience I gained allowed me to realize that I enjoyed chemistry labs more, said Telfer. “Since I have always wanted to stay in a laboratory all day, it was important that I discover the type of lab work I wanted to do on a day-to-day basis.”
Telfer is now an undergraduate researcher in the Bollinger – Krebs – Boal research group working with such faculty as; professor of chemistry and of biochemistry and molecular biology J. Martin Bollinger, professor of chemistry and of biochemistry and molecular biology Carsten Krebs, and associate professor of chemistry and of biochemistry and of molecular biology Amie Boal. There she is investigating an enzyme on the biosynthetic pathway to a terminal alkyne amino acid.
Alkyne functional groups are rarely observed in biological systems and only recently discovered in specialized bacterial organisms. Terminal alkynes are very reactive and useful for attaching chemical probes to proteins and other biological molecules. Telfer seeks to understand the chemical mechanism of an enzyme called BesC, which is partially responsible for synthesis of the alkyne functional group. BesC belongs to a new structural class of enzymes, all of which utilize a diiron cofactor and oxygen for catalysis. She plans to use optical spectroscopy combined with rapid mixing techniques to characterize intermediates in the BesC reaction to gain new insight into how it works.