Student Apprentices Make Strides in Biochemistry

Posted: July 11, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Ryann Doyle

Whether it be fighting bioterrorist agents or improving malaria medication, Mason students are busy this summer. Each semester, the Center for Teaching Excellence provides 15 students, drawn broadly from the sciences, arts, management, social sciences, engineering and humanities, with an apprenticeship to work one-on-one with a faculty member and pursue a specific scholarly project in their major field of study.

Some of Mason’s brightest are performing hands-on research in biochemistry. Senior chemistry major Andrew Christenson is engaging in a collaborative effort between mentor and Assistant Professor of Biochemistry Robin Couch and Capt. William McCalmont of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR).

Student Elissa Williams and Prof. Robin Couch
Student Elissa Williams is working this summer with Prof. Robin Couch as part of the apprenticeship program that pairs an undergraduate student with a professor to conduct research in their field.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Christenson proposed his research interest to focus on better understanding the antimalarial drug mefloquine. This drug is highly effective at preventing and treating malaria, a disease infecting as many as 400 million people annually. However, via unknown mechanisms, the drug sometimes causes severe side effects, including tremors, hallucinations, disturbed sleep patterns and even suicidal tendencies.

The first phase of his research involves producing versions of mefloquine needed in the second phase. During this process, Christenson will work closely with McCalmont, an experienced organic chemist. Once the needed compounds have been made and evaluated at WRAIR, phase two will rely on Couch’s expertise in running a human protein binding analysis that will identify the structures in the human brain that are affected by malaria.

The project aims to understand how mefloquine interacts with the human brain. Researchers ultimately want to improve upon the drug so that it can still be potent as an antimalarial, but without the dangerous side effects.

Christenson is currently a student employee at WRAIR, where he might remain after graduation. He hopes to eventually enter a PhD program in the biological sciences. His goal is to be proficient enough to produce good science that will help alleviate human suffering.

“Biochemistry in particular fascinates me because I feel honored to live in its time of great discovery,” says Christenson. “I think it is unquestionable that for the next 100 years the biological sciences will have the greatest impact, for better or worse, on how we live our lives.”

Yet another gifted student has been chosen to work under Couch’s guidance. Elissa Williams is in the chemistry accelerated master’s program, and her research focuses on the development of improved antibiotics used in treating tularemia, a disease caused by the bacterium “Francisella tularensis.”” F. tularensis” is a Category A bioterrorist agent and therefore poses the highest risk to national security. Tularemia is devastating to the human body, causing abscesses, rashes and pneumonia.

Although incidentally acquired tularemia infections can often be treated with a select number of antibiotics, there are “F. tularensis” strains that have been engineered to be resistant to them, reportedly already developed in Russia. These strands are more likely to be used as biological warfare agents.

“Currently in the news there have been many reports of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A bioterrorist attack using ‘F. tularensis’ in the Washington, D.C., area would have a major impact on the health of the population and also the area’s economy,” says Williams, noting the motive behind her study. “Thus, I believe that there is a dire need for the development of novel antibiotics.”

Her research may contribute to the discovery of a new antibiotic that will kill these antibiotic-resistant bacteria, along with other dangerous bacteria with the same structure — and could save countless lives.

After graduation, Williams plans to seek a job with an industrial pharmaceutical company researching and creating pharmaceuticals. Her interest lies in testing the effects of pharmaceuticals on organisms.

“The human body and the processes of life are fascinating to me. It is amazing how everything alive, from bacteria to fish to humans, consists of complicated biochemical processes or metabolic pathways. Each day, as living organisms breathe, billions of processes occur simultaneously,” she says.

“Without biochemical knowledge, people would not understand how living organisms operate, and advancements in medicine could not be made.”

Write to at