Ask most students to craft an essay expounding on “what I did during my summer vacation” and you would likely receive anecdotes about new places to which they have traveled, former acquaintances they’ve reconnected with and probably more than a few laments about a ho-hum summer job.
But pose that same question to Lawrence students Alex Winter ’10 and Mei Xian Gong ’11 and the answer will be refreshingly different. Winter and Gong spent their summer on campus doing research with proteins — research aimed at laying the groundwork for what, years from now, could eventually lead to a cure for cancer.
The pair’s advisor for the project was Kimberly Dickson, assistant professor of chemistry and a specialist in protein structure and function. Dickson had initiated this particular research project years earlier, as a member of the faculty at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and she was eager to try to take it to the next level with the help of students at Lawrence.
“I am pursuing this project because the questions we are asking are rooted in basic science and require students to understand fundamental principles of biochemistry as well as the broad applications of those concepts,” said Dickson. “By designing proteins with novel functions, we are exploring some important principles of protein structure and stability. However, we can use those new proteins to better understand biological systems, and, eventually, manipulate those proteins to achieve a specific biological outcome. This summer, we worked on producing and purifying mutant proteins that I created at Macalester. Our goal was to see if these mutant proteins would be stable and biochemically active in the harsh environment outside of a cell — something that has not been achieved before. We expect that the mutant proteins may not function normally anymore, but we hope that they can serve as a generic scaffold upon which we can construct sticky regions that bind only to selected proteins. Through this binding action, new proteins would be created that might possibly have some therapeutic benefits, like being able to block blood vessel growth to tumors.”
Dickson is quick to point out that the perceived end result is quite a challenging goal, and it is one that would take years, if not decades of work to achieve. “I’m very honest with my students and say, ‘Sure, it’s motivating to think of this research as having a therapeutic context and it’s exciting, but the reality of it is pretty slim. Designing new cancer chemotherapeutics is a tricky business with a lot of competition.’ However, where we can find success is in providing the scientific community with new information about how much you can modify these proteins; how much you can mold them into what you want them to be without destroying them altogether. And that is probably going to have a bigger and more immediate impact scientifically than the therapeutic part of it.”
That larger-than-life thinking is exactly the hallmark of a Lawrence education. Whether in the lab, classroom, studio or rehearsal room, Lawrence uses its liberal arts platform to prepare its students for a lifetime of learning.
“Lawrence starts early and strong about learning across disciplines using Freshman Studies as a basis,” said David Hall, associate professor of chemistry. “It exposes freshmen to a variety of different topics and gets them involved in exploring their interests in college instead of being focused on a single major. The sciences at Lawrence are quite interdisciplinary where professors and their students work with each other on projects that cut across several disciplinary areas. Liberal learners like these are very flexible in what they can do in life.”
An unlikely duo
For Mei Gong, spending a summer doing scientific research is something she never imagined having the opportunity to do. At the age of nine she and her family immigrated to the United States from China. Once settled, Gong relied, in part, on American television shows to help her learn English.
As a middle and high school student in New York City, Gong said she was fascinated with anything having to do with medicine. While the lab work she did as part of her chemistry and biology classes continued to pique her interest, she admits that she didn’t fully understand what the term “going to college” meant, the opportunities it could provide and whether it was something she wanted to pursue after her high school graduation. All that changed when one of her high school teachers encouraged her to apply for a Posse scholarship. As Gong was contemplating her future, Lawrence was putting the finishing touches on a unique partnership with the Posse Foundation, Inc., to be part of a program that prepares students from New York City for enrollment at Lawrence and other top-tier universities nationwide. Gong decided to apply, breezed through the interview process and was selected as one of 10 members of Lawrence’s first Posse cohort, becoming the first member of her family to enroll in college. “I wanted to go to a small school where the teachers would get to know me, and Lawrence was my first choice,” Gong said. “My parents were so proud of me.”
Being a first-generation college student also made Gong eligible for the McNair Scholars program. The federally funded program, named after Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair, provides students who are often underrepresented in graduate programs with the resources to pursue doctoral degrees. With help from Nancy Wall, associate dean of the faculty and associate professor of biology, Gong submitted a successful application. At the end of her sophomore year, the chemistry major received the necessary funding to pursue a summer research project. It wasn’t long before she went knocking on professor Dickson’s door.
For Alex Winter, a biology and English major, the seeds for finding a summer research project were planted after spending time overseas. “After returning from Fall Term in London, I decided that an internship would be beneficial in getting experience in the lab before going to graduate school. But it was hard to find anything that was available. Most programs wanted you to apply in the fall, and I hadn’t thought about it because I was in Europe. I talked to Beth De Stasio (professor of biology and Raymond H. Herzog Professor of Science) and she mentioned that Professor Dickson was doing some really interesting research, so I went and talked to her, and we went from there.”
A fruitful partnership
It wasn’t long before Gong and Winter were introduced to each other and their summer research project began. With his biology background, Winter served as a mentor to Gong, helping to make her transition into the lab a smooth one. It was a move that at one point even caused him to rethink his career aspirations. “It was a great opportunity for me,” said Winter. “Because in addition to helping Mei, it really introduced me to a career that I hadn’t really thought about. I always considered science writing, but after working with Mei, I discovered that teaching might be something that I would be interested in doing. It was a lot of fun.”
Summer research projects like this one are a key part of Dickson’s scholarship at Lawrence. “The laboratory work is much too intricate, much too involved and too time consuming to make great strides during the academic year,” Dickson said. “Summer research is when 90 percent of the work gets done. Students and
I have the time to really focus on these projects, so we can make progress and see some results. Of course, the summer flies by, but it’s satisfying to look back and see how far we’ve come in 10 weeks.”
For Gong and Winter the lessons learned in the lab were invaluable. “What was great about the opportunity I had with professor Dickson,” said Winter, “was having the time to go in depth for the protocols I chose. It allowed me to dig into the reasons for what we were doing. As far as being an undergraduate, it was just the type of experience I needed as I set my sights on graduate school.”
“It changed me,” said Gong. “Before I was only interested in chemistry; now I’m taking biology and chemistry classes. Before I wasn’t looking into research, but now I know that it can be a job that I’ll never be bored with. It really helped me understand more about myself.”
While Dickson says that the project the pair worked on was typical of an undergraduate research project, what makes it special at Lawrence is that Gong and Winter were in charge of their own project. “They have to be thoughtful, careful and critical in the lab. It’s a bit of a sink or swim environment because they are doing it without the guidance of graduate students. They have to make good decisions, or they end up doing things over again.”
In addition to Gong and Winter, a number of other students were on campus this past summer doing other independent study research projects in physics, biochemistry, chemistry and biology. Lawrence has received grants from several public and private agencies to help support these endeavors. Gifts to the college’s Excellence in Science Fund, an endowed fund, also help cover the costs of supplies, student stipends and travel to regional and national conferences. In October, Winter attended the Midstates Undergraduate Research Symposium at Washington University in St. Louis, where he presented his research to students and faculty scholars from St. Olaf, Grinnell, Hope College and other member institutions of the Midstates Consortium for Math and Science. Dickson and Gong are making plans to attend the national conference for the American Chemical Society next fall, where Gong will present the research.
Building for the future
As for the potential of her pet summer research project producing another Lawrence Nobel Prize winner, Dickson said it’s not likely. However, she said Lawrence absolutely has the facilities and the programs to train undergraduates to be the best of the best.
“We are very proud of our students — they are talented and hard-working — but we train them in the laboratory, and just as they are beginning to see the fruits of their work, they graduate. The kind of research that Tom Steitz is doing certainly requires graduate students and post-docs.”
While the amount of time one must devote to research of the magnitude Tom Steitz is doing is staggering, being connected to the college where Steitz earned his undergraduate degree has been inspiring to students and faculty. For Winter, one of the most beneficial takeaways from the summer was being comfortable with the trial and error aspect of any type of scientific research. “Although I didn’t see the concrete results that I was expecting, a bigger part of the experience was learning that it’s more common to fail, and if you’re expecting to get something every time you’re going to be disappointed. It’s much more valuable to learn how to pick yourself up and start over again.”
Gong’s experience caused her to become more open-minded to the sciences in general. “Just as chemistry is not pure chemistry, we still have to understand some biology and some physics to understand the whole picture. In a sense, it helped me see that everything is connected.”