The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department is proud to be called home to some of the most outstanding undergraduate students in higher education. These students display a high level of dedication, not only in furthering their education but in their desire to be on the frontlines of scientific discovery.
Meet Basel Karim, a rising Senior, from Eagleville Pennsylvania, majoring in both Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, as well as Chemistry, and pursuing minors in both Mathematics and Microbiology. His decision to attend Penn State for his undergraduate degree was based on the balance of activities and opportunities the University offered. He described Penn State as a mixture of both fun and adventure, and was impressed with the high caliber research facilities the University provided. “After almost 4 years as a student, I can truly say that Penn State is exactly what I was looking for,” said Basel.
Basel is what some refer to as a triple-threat student as he excels in the classroom as well as the laboratory while also working to make a lasting impact on the local community. Beyond the success he has found as part of his rigorous course load, he has also been engaged in undergraduate research for the past three and a half years. Working in the laboratory, and under the mentorship, of Paul Berg Early Career Professor of Chemistry and of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Xin Zhang, Basel has contributed to meaningful research and refined his technical skills as a scientist. Primarily he works as an organic chemist, synthesizing fluorogenic compounds used as molecular sensors to detect protein aggregation.
Together with a graduate student, Conner Hoelzel, Basel is developing a biochemical assay that will detect protein aggregation, a biological phenomenon in which mis-folded proteins aggregate either intra or extracellularly. Many neurodegenerative diseases are related to the misfolding of proteins. Basel and Connor have discovered several literature compounds that have the ideal fluorogenic properties needed to detect protein aggregation. Working to optimize these properties by synthesizing derivatives, they are testing new compounds using methods such as absorption spectroscopy, and fluorescence spectroscopy.
Basel and Connor are working to develop a probe that will be used to tag proteins. The probe consists of a linking component that will bind the protein of interest with the fluorogenic molecule they have synthesized. Once they have completed their work on the probe, they will temporarily unite it with the protein in order to facilitate an exchange of genetic material.
Once achieved, proteins will be able to be tagged and will fluoresce based on pre-specified conditions and according to the protein’s folded state (normal or misfolded). Basel and Conner’s work will generate a positive fluorescent readout for factors that promote refolding from intermediate misfolded species (ie. Misfolded monomers and/or cytotoxic oligomers). This work is the foundation for a facile and widely applicable method to test drug targets that may affect or prevent protein misfolded.
Outside of the classroom and laboratory, Basel is dedicated to making a difference within the local community through the selfless act of service. During the Fall of 2017 Basel, along with friends Josh Pezzulo and Nick Aksu, established the student service organization Breath of Life. Breath of Life seeks to better the lives of those suffering from chronic ailments or facing terminal conditions. “For me, volunteering is very important since my mom works in the medical field,” says Basel. “She has influenced me to be kind and caring to those who cannot care for themselves.”
Currently the service organization consists of 8 members and serves Juniper Village, a State College living facility for senior citizens needing living/personal and memory care, as well as rehabilitation and skilled care services. Example of the services the organization helps to provide are; providing arts and crafts activities to residents, conducting interviews for the facility, and the transporting of residents to and from locations within Juniper Village.
Basel credits his collegiate success to three specific members of the Penn State community, Dr. Xin Zhang, Connor Hoelzel, and Dr. Bratoljub Milosavljevic.
When talking about Dr. Zhang Basel said, “He has given me great freedom to explore what the lab has to offer and has taught me how to conduct myself as a researcher and teammate to others working in the lab.” In addition, Basel also credits Dr. Zhang for challenging him to be the best student he can be.
When speaking about Connor Hoelzel, “Given the rigor of obtaining a Ph. D., Conner has taught me from the beginning and he never gave up, regardless of the obstacles that I faced,” said Basel. “As a role model, he is extremely gifted, hardworking, and dedicated to becoming the best researcher within his field and he never gives up on a problem.”
Lastly, Basel credits Dr. Milosavljevic for advancing his understanding of general laboratory techniques. “While my research did not pertain to his class, I believe that my time spent with him developed my problem-solving skills, my understanding of chemical techniques, and developed the mindset needed for me to be successful in graduate school,” said Basel.
After graduation Basel has aspirations to become a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry. “My dream is to make affordable new medicine and treatment for people in need,” says Basel. In order to pursue his dreams, he plans to pursue his Ph.D. in chemical biology.