Meet Peter Christen Forstmeier, a 2021 Goldwater Scholar.
A resident of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, Peter is currently a Junior majoring in Biochemistry Option of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Currently, Peter conducts his research in the Bevilacqua Laboratory where he is mentored by Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Philip Bevilacqua, as well as McCauley Meyer, a Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology Graduate Student.
Research in the Bevilacqua laboratory is centered on understanding functions of RNA in nature at the molecular level. Upon graduating from Penn State, he plans to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. degree, then eventually lead his own laboratory focused on the biochemical mechanisms of human disease.
Let’s learn a little more about Peter, where his love of science stemmed from, the research he conducts, and more.
What led you to want to pursue an education in biochemistry and molecular biology, and a subsequent career in science?
I have always enjoyed science from a young age. This was encouraged by my mother, who homeschooled me and my siblings through eighth grade. My serious interest in science as a career was solidified by my science teachers in high school: Mrs. Badger and Mr. Klepeiss. Both of them worked hard to offer dual-enrollment classes. After taking those classes, Mrs. Badger was able to set up an introductory organic chemistry class for my senior year. This experience helped me realize my love for chemistry and I enrolled as a chemistry major my freshman year at Penn State.
Over the course of my time at Penn State, I realized that I was drawn to the biological relevance of chemical reactions. My work in the Bevilacqua Lab on RNA chemistry was a clear window into the type of career I wanted: biochemistry. The unique combination of chemistry with biological relevance is very interesting to me, and my work could have direct impact in helping people's lives for the better.
What research do you conduct as an undergraduate researcher?
The research I conduct with Dr. Philip Bevilacqua and his graduate student McCauley Meyer is centered around the folding of RNA. RNA is a nucleic acid like DNA that can store biological information. Unlike DNA, however, RNA can perform functional roles in the cell like an enzyme is able to do. It is known that functional RNAs perform important tasks like regulation of gene expression and is important to the life cycle of many viruses, including SARS-CoV-2 and HIV. It is also known that functional RNAs can be disrupted with therapeutic techniques, which opens the door to the creation of new treatments for genetic disorders or viral infections.
In short, finding new functional RNAs is looking for new avenues of disease treatment. For a functional RNA to work properly, it must fold into a unique shape. In order to fold properly, it must maintain its sequence of nucleotides, the base-paring between nucleotides, and long-range base-pairing. My work is to use these characteristics to try to find new functional RNAs by computationally parsing through genomic data, tracking rates of mutations, and the impact of those mutations. This process allows us to narrow down our search for new functional RNAs to only strong candidates. Once identified, these RNAs can be experimentally characterized to determine their function and to determine if they are suitable therapeutic targets.