After the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled all in-person undergraduate research programs in Summer 2020, the Department of Biochemistry was more determined than ever to engage students in research and experiential learning opportunities in Summer 2021. A total of thirty-seven students participated in undergraduate research in the Department of Biochemistry this summer. Students from the Virginia Tech Department of Biochemistry, Virginia Tech Department of Biological Sciences, peer universities like NC State University and the University of Texas at Dallas, and high schools around Blacksburg, participated in research opportunities across thirteen labs.

Students were involved in various summer programs including, but not limited to, the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program (MAOP), Jeffress Trust Interdisciplinary Research Program, Computational Biochemistry of Ancient Proteins Summer Program, GlycoMIP Summer Undergraduate Research Program, and the Fralin Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program. Biochemistry students Sara Pacini, Zachary Hartman, Sara Gallegos, and Meghana Kamineni participated in summer undergraduate research programs over the summer and they represent the wide array of research interests and focuses in our department.  

Sara Pacini, Virginia Tech biochemistry student
Sara Pacini, biochemistry sophomore.

Sara Pacini, sophomore, studied three genes in Fusobacterium nucleatum in Dr. Daniel Slade’s lab.

Genes 177, 279, and 1005 encode for proteins that are seen to inhibit lysozyme in our mouth. Lysozyme is an enzyme typically found in our saliva that kills bacteria and, since F. nucleatum has these genes, the bacteria can live a lot longer in people’s mouths and travel to other parts of the body. F. nucleatum is an important bacterium to study because Virginia Tech researchers discovered in July 2020 that this mouth bacterium may cause colon cancer to spread.

The main objective in the Slade Lab is to study the factors of the bacteria’s virulence: the degree in which damage is caused to a host. With more knowledge about F. nucleatum’s virulence, the goal is to stop this bacterium from potentially escalating the spread of colorectal cancer.

“The positive learning community within Slade’s lab kickstarted my basic knowledge of laboratory protocols, working with live bacteria, and how academic research is managed in ways I never imagined,” Pacini said. “Colorectal cancer has personally impacted my life and the idea of working with something that means so much to me early on in my career constantly reassures me of my choice to choose this path.”

Zachary Hartman, Virginia Tech biochemistry student
Zachary Hartman, biochemistry junior.

Zachary Hartman, junior, studied the most common cause of Lyme disease in Dr. Richard Helm’s lab.

Hartman and researchers in Helm’s lab are partnering with the National Science Foundation (NSF) GlycoMIP facility to analyze certain structural anomalies found in the cell wall of Borrelia burgdorferi. Unique pathogen cell wall molecules have been implicated as a cause of Lyme disease and Hartman’s role in this research project was to purify and isolate fragments of this cell wall. 

Isolating and characterizing the structures of these fragments could potentially lead researchers to further understand the mechanisms of how Lyme disease symptoms originate, and subsequently, what a possible path forward with treatment might look like. At the conclusion of the program, Hartman was able to contribute more knowledge about the structure of the cell wall in this bacterium and Helm is continuing forward with this work on a larger scale throughout the Fall 2021 semester.

“My freshman year, I realized how passionate I was about science and pursuing interdisciplinary research and transferred into Biochemistry my sophomore year. After taking Biochemical Techniques with Dr. Helm, I knew that I wanted to begin working in his lab, especially after learning about the analytical processes and methods that he works with on a daily basis,” Hartman said. “As a result of my undergraduate research this summer, I feel much more equipped in pursuing research within biochemistry! Given the last year and all of the challenges students here at Virginia Tech have faced, myself included, the opportunity to do research in-person this summer was a huge breath of fresh air.”

Sara Gallegos, Virginia Tech biochemistry student
Sara Gallegos, biochemistry sophomore.

Sara Gallegos, sophomore, studied methylated pterin biosynthesis research in Dr. Kylie Allen’s lab.

Gallegos participated in the Allen Lab as a Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program (MAOP) Summer Scholar. She researched the functions of enzymes that produce Tetrahydromethanopterin (H4MPT), a compound found in methanogenic microbes that is vital to the production of methane, which is a prominent greenhouse gas. Gallegos and researchers in Allen’s lab found that an enzyme denoted MA1486 catalyzes a unique methylation reaction during the production of H4MPT. This discovery could possibly lead to a process that can inhibit the formation of the H4MPT molecule and decrease the production of methane gas and global warming in the future.

"My current research advisor during the school year, Dr. Anne Brown, suggested trying wet lab with Dr. Allen, as the majority of research in Dr. Brown’s lab is computational,” Gallegos said. “This experience helped me become more comfortable in a lab setting and gave me a broader idea of research, which can look completely different depending on the project.”

Meghana Kamineni, Virginia Tech biochemistry student
Meghana Kamineni, biochemistry sophomore.

Meghana Kamineni, sophomore, studied Brome Mosaic Virus (BMV) in Dr. Anne Brown’s lab.

Kamineni’s curiosity about the drug discovery field alongside her prior experience with molecular modeling was what originally led her to the Brown Lab. She began her research on BMV in January 2021 and had the opportunity to continue in the summer.

BMV is a positive-strand RNA virus that drastically reduces the yield of cereal plants, such as wheat, rice, and corn, through cell death. This reduction in cereal plant yield could result in widespread food insecurity and developmental delays in young children due to lack of proper nutrition. In Brown’s lab, Kamineni was researching the proteins in BMV that play a key role in viral replication.

Her research revealed how BMV affects cells and she identified potential mutations that can prevent BMV from affecting cereal plants. This new information can be used to develop preventative methods and treatments for cereal plants. “BMV is responsible for up to 61% yield loss in a crop of wheat,” Brown said. “With more knowledge and research about the virus, we can be more proactive in protecting our crops.”

“Research allows me to develop analytical skills and opens opportunities for me to continue learning throughout my undergraduate studies. Through research, I hope to determine the right career path for me,” Kamineni said. “I am excited to continue learning about an innovative field that uses computational techniques to understand molecular structure and dynamics.”

Written by Cameron Warren