From proteins to biosensors

Beckman Scholars gain real-world research experience

mackKorrie Mack’s first experience in a research lab involved unpacking boxes, organizing benches, assembling equipment and labeling countless drawers to help a new faculty member set up his laboratory during the fall of 2011. A year later, the senior biochemistry major in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, is cloning and purifying proteins, identifying their properties using mass spectroscopy and carrying out her own research in the area of protein-based biological sensors.

Mack and Manu Arul, a junior biophysical science major, are SU’s 2012 Beckman Scholars. Funded by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, the highly competitive program supports select students interested in chemistry, biochemistry, and the biological and medical sciences.  Beckman Scholars receive $19,300 in financial support over two summers and a full academic year for laboratory research, scientific meeting travel funds and research supplies.

Mack and Arul are now halfway through their Beckman Scholars program. They spent the summer of 2012 working in research labs and will continue working on their projects through the summer of 2013.  Mack works with Karin Ruhlandt, chair of the Department of Chemistry, on a collaborative project with Ivan Korendovych, assistant professor of chemistry; Arul works with Liviu Movileanu, associate professor of physics and director of the Biophysical Science Program in The College of Arts and Sciences. Both students are studying the potential of proteins for use as biological sensors, but they approach the topic from different perspectives.

Proteins are a vital component of all living cells and come in many forms. Proteins protect and provide structure to multi-celled organisms. Proteins regulate and protect the body chemistry, initiate or accelerate chemical reactions that are critical to cell function, and facilitate the transportation of oxygen and other vital substances within organisms.

With Ruhlandt and Korendovych, Mack studies a class of proteins that bind to metals (metalloproteins), which are involved in many biological processes. Korendovych’s laboratory has synthetically produced a metalloprotein nicknamed OrangeCat. Mack’s contribution to the research involves synthesizing genetic variations of OrangeCat and studying their properties and sensitivity to a class of “rare earth” metals called lanthanides. Mack is co-author of a paper, currently in process, based on the work.

When Mack began her undergraduate career, her goal was to go to medical school. She’s now set her career path on research and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry.  “Conducting my first experiment in a research laboratory was an epiphany moment for me,” she says. “I couldn’t get enough of it.  Working in a research laboratory enabled me to discover my passion.”

Arul is headed to medical school. He was recently accepted into the Early Assurance Program at the State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University. Arul hopes to pursue a dual M.D./Ph.D. program at SUNY Upstate. His interest in the combined program was sparked by the research he is doing in Movileanu’s laboratory on nanopore technologies.

Movileanu’s research team engineers protein nanopores that can detect DNA-containing molecules. Nanopores—which are about 20 times larger than an atom (a trillion could fit on the head of a pin)—are devices in cell membranes through which proteins are transported in and out of cells, one molecule at a time.  The process causes a change in tiny electric currents flowing through the nanopores, which are unique to the type of molecule being transported. This characteristic enables scientists to use nanopore technology to identify and study individual molecules.

Arul is working with Movileanu to study the electrical signatures of cancer proteins. The goal of this research is to determine the feasibility of using nanopore technology to create new screening tools for early cancer detection. Arul is also a co-author on a paper, currently in process, based on the work. Arul plans to continue his research in the area of cancer detection technologies when he goes to SUNY Upstate.

“Working in a laboratory in a team setting is very rewarding,” Arul says. “When I came to SU, I toured Professor Movileanu’s laboratory and was hooked. Biophysical science allows me to integrate two areas of science in which I have a strong interest—biology and physics. I am also getting a strong research experience that will help me achieve my goals.”

To see a video of Mack and Arul, go here.