Month: June 2020

Lighting the Way With … Samuel Wrenn: In search of a COVID-19 vaccine

Samuel Wrenn ’17, second from the right, poses with his research team at the Institute of Protein Design (IPD) at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has been working in IPD research labs since 2018.

About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence University alumni. Today we catch up with Samuel Wrenn ’17, a research scientist in Seattle.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Samuel Wrenn ’17 is doing work that most everyone on the planet has a deep interest in these days.

A research scientist at the Institute of Protein Design (IPD) at the University of Washington in Seattle, Wrenn is part of a team searching for a vaccine for COVID-19, the coronavirus that has put much of the world on lockdown for months.

Dozens of teams of scientists all over the world are racing the clock to find a vaccine. About 10 vaccine possibilities have been green-lighted for human trials and others are nearing that point, according to the World Health Organization. Until a working vaccine is delivered, a full return to normal daily activities is unlikely.

Wrenn, who majored in mathematics at Lawrence, spent eight months in New Zealand following his 2017 graduation, a chance to reconnect with his grandmother’s homeland. He then moved to Seattle in 2018 to live with a couple of fellow Lawrentians, and landed the job with IPD shortly thereafter.

His work took a severe turn when the COVID-19 crisis arrived. The virus was declared a global pandemic in March, and with his work to date in nanoparticle research, Wrenn was selected to join the COVID-19 vaccine development team.

Samuel Wrenn ’17 on chasing a vaccine: “We have at least one meeting a day to discuss results from that day’s experiments and discuss how those results shape our path forward and inform our next steps.”

To date, the U.S. has seen more than 2.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 126,000 deaths. The death toll worldwide exceeds 500,000. Despite the push on research and testing, a vaccine isn’t expected to be available until sometime in 2021, at the earliest.

Wrenn shared with us information and insight about his job and the balance between urgency and patience in the search for a vaccine.

On his role on the IPD vaccine development team:

“We are developing a protein nanoparticle vaccine, and I work with a small team of people on purification process development and biophysical characterization of the vaccine candidates. In layman terms, each protein is different and needs to be purified under different conditions. I work to identify those conditions and then to validate that the proteins are behaving in the predicted manner once they are purified.”

On the sense of urgency to find a vaccine:

“My team is highly collaborative and, in my opinion, excels in communication. There is definitely a sense of urgency, but that feeling cannot outweigh the patient, calculated method in which proper science is conducted. We have at least one meeting a day to discuss results from that day’s experiments and discuss how those results shape our path forward and inform our next steps.

“I am fortunate that the leadership in my lab and on this project is very well informed, so there is a pretty strong sense of purpose and reasoning for every decision that is made. Having that guidance helps move the project along without feeling like we are flailing. That said, the workload and the amount of work expected from each of us has certainly increased since this project began.”

On his work before the pandemic hit:

“The institute employs a core structure of research scientists and engineers to facilitate research and project progression for the labs we are affiliated with. I have been a member of the nanoparticle core since October of 2018. We specialize in projects relating to the lab’s nanoparticle platform. Because the vaccine we are developing relies on that platform, which I have been working with in various capacities for the last year and a half, I was selected to be part of the vaccine development team.

“The projects I was most closely affiliated with before this were targeted cancer therapeutic drug delivery, endosomal escape, and a variety of structural projects relating to the architecture of our nanoparticles—their assembly and construction.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

2 Minutes With … Emily Harper: Science, space, and a chance to explore

Emily Harper ’22 is doing summer research via the NASA Space Grant Program.

Story by Isabella Mariani ’21

Amid the uncertainty of an unconventional Spring Term, Emily Harper ’22 received good news that’s keeping her eyes on the future. The Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium (WSGC) awarded her a stipend for a summer research program, the Elijah Balloon Payload Team Educational Experience.

The grant is provided by NASA’s Space Grant Program, which works with partner universities like Lawrence to fund educational opportunities in science and aerospace in order to prepare students like Harper for careers in space science.

Harper, of Westerville, Ohio, applied for the Elijah Balloon Team on a suggestion from Jeff Clark, a professor of geosciences. She was in the process of applying to other summer research programs when this one came her way.

She is spending nine weeks with a research team made up mostly of engineering students. They will decide together what they want to test with Elijah, WSGC’s high-altitude balloon used to collect data in near-space environments. As a chemistry and English major, Harper looks forward to sharing new learning perspectives with her interdisciplinary team.

“Engineers think a lot differently than a standard chemistry standpoint,” she said, “so it will be interesting to see how I can work on a team with engineering students and solve problems together.”

Sparking an interest

Her interest in field research took root in the fall when she did chemistry fieldwork with her advisor, assistant professor of chemistry Deanna Donahue. She learned to love working in rugged conditions and unpredictable weather.

Of course, things will look a bit different this time around due to COVID-19. The summer research will move to an online format, and perhaps be based more in the design and development of the project.

Looking forward

Despite some uncertainty, Harper is thankful for what she’ll be able to experience. She hopes this summer’s research will inform her future career interests.

“When the pandemic started to get more serious and we were sent home for Spring Term, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do anything in terms of research opportunities for summer,” she said. “So, I’m very grateful that this program is still able to happen virtually.”

Isabella Mariani ’21 is a student writer in the Communications office.

On Main Hall Green With … Doug Martin: Discovering delight in physics

Portrait on Main Hall Green: Doug Martin (photo by Danny Damiani)

About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member every two weeks — same questions, different answers.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Doug Martin’s combination of curiosity and scientific know-how has made him a key member of Lawrence University’s physics department since 2007.

He teaches courses ranging from optics to quantum mechanics to experimental physics, among others. A biophysicist, his scholarly interests focus on the mechanics and dynamics of cellular processes — transport, motility, division and signaling — that explain how life works.

Physics faculty keep student connections alive amid distance learning. See story here.

Originally from Denver, Colo., Martin earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in mathematics and physics at Pomona College and completed his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Texas.

We caught up with Martin to talk about his work in the classrooms and labs of Lawrence and his interests away from campus.

IN THE CLASSROOM

Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?

I love physics. I’m astonished that we can understand the natural world, quantitatively, with relatively simple mathematics. I’m delighted by new discoveries – from the physics that causes flower petals to curl to the Higgs boson. And, more to the point, I think every Lawrence student is an intuitive physicist, whether they appreciate it or not. Music, sports, visual art – all involve physical processes that we grasp intuitively. So, why do I want students to know this? Because, despite the grind of mathematics, abstract reasoning, spatial visualization, approximation, and the worry about understanding, the worry about belonging – all the things that come along with a physics class – my hope is to help students in my classes claim or reclaim delight in physics.

Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?

Teaching! Whatever I’m teaching next is the best. As I answer this, I’m preparing to talk about diffraction and why optical telescopes are now 100 feet across, and why a radio telescope the size of the earth was necessary to capture the first image of a black hole. Why is teaching what gets me most excited? I have the privilege of teaching about our endlessly amazing world, and every class is an opportunity for me to recapture wonder. What could be better? Well, sometimes building microscopes is better, because then I get to see new things, too.

Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional or spiritual) that took you by surprise?

This is a hard question for me to answer because I’m a little surprised by almost everything. So, let me pick an easy, Lawrence-centric, example. I taught at the London Centre in the fall of 2018. The surprise?  How great it was. I’d thought: London is in an English-speaking country, how different will it really be?  Here are two quick examples. First: one of my classes decided we should meet in a different coffee house every day, from the delightfully named Fuckoffee to the café in an abandoned public toilet to the crypt of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. With all due respect to Acoca and Lou’s, these are something new.  Second: everything was at our doorstep. Theater? A dozen premiere shows every night. The world’s oldest sewage plant? Yes! Museums? Free! Paris? Eurostar departs a 15-minute walk from the dorms. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised at how rich the experience was, but I was.

OUT OF THE CLASSROOM

This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing? 

I really don’t know. Maybe working at a national lab doing fundamental research. Maybe calibrating the machines used in radiation therapy at a hospital. Maybe developing medical lasers. These were opportunities in the past, but now? Could be almost anything.

Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?

Bjork! The physical separation from home and office seems to let me leave stresses behind and just be present. My sense is that something like that is true for students too, so it makes it easier to interact informally.

One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?

I’m pretty voracious when it comes to all three, so let me pick something good and recent, for me.

Book: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. It is set in London, so all of the exploring my classes did there took us to the neighborhoods in the book. And it is laugh-out-loud funny. And it borders on the strange line between the horror of watching a car crash and the very sweet.   

Recording: The Pet Shop Boys have a new album, Hotspot. I have a lot of nostalgia for the musicians of my childhood, and the Pet Shop Boys still put on a pretty good show. More to the point for this question: they’ve crafted an album that (after a bit of a rocky start) moves really well, from dance-y start to warm and fuzzy finish. And I’m old enough to enjoy entire albums at one sitting.

Film: Spaceballs. What can I say, Rick Moranis is a comedic genius. Or maybe that my laughter at this movie reveals that I am a 12-year-old at heart.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

2 Minutes With … Shania Johnson: A Met internship on the path of art history

Shania Johnson ’22 has been doing research this term on art history. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

2 Minutes With … is a series of short features to introduce us to the passions and interests of Lawrence students on and off campus. Find more 2 Minutes With … features here.

Story by Awa Badiane ’21

When COVID-19 got in the way of a coveted internship this summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Shania Johnson ’22 was determined not to let the opportunity slip away.

The Lawrence University sophomore from Rosedale, New York, worked with her faculty advisors to create a fall schedule that will allow her to move the internship to the fall while keeping her classwork on schedule.

“In high school, I did an internship at the Met,” said Johnson. “And at the time I wasn’t really considering a career in art history, but that internship really opened my eyes to the art world, or the contemporary art world at least.” 

But it wasn’t until her time at Lawrence that she realized that art history could be her potential career path.  

“It made me start to think about art history and curatorial work as a career path,” Johnson said. “But I never really took it seriously until I got to college and I realized I can actually make a living out of it.” 

Shifting plans

For this summer, Johnson was accepted into the internship offered to college students by the Met. But due to COVID-19, The Met will not be reopening until the end of the summer season and has transferred its summer internships to the fall. Johnson created a plan with Lawrence’s Art History department that allows her to work the internship without falling behind on her course schedule.

“This internship was really selective, and I didn’t want to give it away because I have to be at school,” Johnson said. “So, I’ll be living in Midtown, working at the Met. And, I have worked it through with faculty here … so I’ll be getting internship credits and independent study credits for the research and work I will be doing.”  

Johnson is excited to take on this experience with the knowledge she has gained during her time at Lawrence.  

“In high school, I felt really insecure, coming from my background and working with some of these other people who come from more fortunate backgrounds,” Johnson said. “But I feel like now being away at college, and being who I am now, more confident, I am really excited for this opportunity.” 

While at Lawrence, Johnson has been working closely with Beth Zinsli, the Wriston Art Center galleries curator, museum studies director, and art history professor.  

“At first I did all the formal things like gallery guard,” Johnson said. “Then I got the internship position where I work with the objects in the archive.” 

Through her internship with the Wriston, and now with the gallery being closed due to COVID-19, Johnson has been doing her own research that will directly connect with the research she will be doing in the fall.  

“I have the chance to do my own research, so that’s been great,” she said. “The paper that I am writing is kind of uncharted territory and I wasn’t sure where I was going to go with it, but it has turned into a pretty lengthy research paper talking about medieval abstraction. And the internship at the Met relates to global medieval art, so this is kind of my segue into the fall.”  

A vision for change

Johnson hopes to one day join the museum world, providing leadership and curating exhibitions, helping to create more accurate narratives for diverse populations.  

“The drive for me is, even today in the museum world, not a lot of people are represented,” Johnson said. “Not a lot of women of color or POC in general, and also not a lot of LGBTQ identities are represented. But I feel like people of color and LGBTQ identities should be part of the people who are making big decisions, curating exhibitions because you have the power to create narratives. When you create an exhibition, you are telling a story that you’re basically selling to people. And if people are not accurately represented the way they should be, that becomes a problem. I want to be able to create narratives for people like me, people from my background, so they can see themselves being represented the way they should be.”  

Awa Badiane ’21 is a student writer in the Communications office.