Monday, June 4, 2018 - 9:50am
2018 graduate research retreat

The department of biochemistry and molecular biology hosted its 2018 graduate research retreat May 21 and 22 at Unicoi State Park in Helen. Graduate students were invited to present their research in the form of a talk or during a poster session, and prizes were offered to the best talk and poster.

Nick Keul of Dr. Zachary A. Wood's lab won for his talk, "How Nature Harnesses Entropy to Tune Protein Function." Keul's research focuses on the relationship between protein structure and function. "Specifically, the work presented at Unicoi is focused on understanding the role of intrinsically disordered peptide segments in regulating protein function," he said.

For many years, Keul said, the disordered surface loops and termini on approximately 40 percent of all proteins had no known function, and had a tendency to be viewed nonfunctional. However, this research has shown the segments play a role in tuning protein function, which he said is exciting in that it challenges the longstanding idea that structure equals function.

Keul, a fifth-year student who's been working on this project for about four years, said he was first exposed to structural biology in high school, and then again while working with Dr. Pablo Sobrado at Virginia Tech. He said he thanks Wood, his colleagues in the lab, and his family.

"Research can be both extremely frustrating and rewarding at times," Keul said. "I often get made-fun of for saying, 'Teamwork makes the dream work,' in lab meetings, but this resonates with me. My scientific achievements were made possible because of everyone in the Wood Lab ... and my family."

Wood echoed that while the research can be frustrating, Keul has the right attitude to produce results in the lab.

"Nick is one of those graduate students that a [principal investigator] is lucky to land," Wood said. "There are very few students who can work a project like his without becoming frustrated. Nick owned his project from the beginning and he set a furious pace in the lab. He put in countless late nights and hit many dead-ends, but in the end, that is what takes to succeed in science."

Jenny Kim of Dr. Michael P Terns' lab won for her poster presentation, "Spacer integration by the Type II-A CRISPR-Cas system of Streptococcus thermophilus." Kim said her research focuses on how this bacteria uses CRISP-Cas systems "harbor chronological memoirs of past infections and mediate its own adaptive immune response."

"Specifically, she is investigating how the bacteria acquires DNA fragments of the virus into its CRISPR genomic locus as a first step in the pathway to provide a heritable memory of the viral invader," Terns said, and according to Kim, this research has the potential to change the way scientists view genetic engineering and the treatment and prevention of mutations and disease.

A fourth-year student, she's been working on this project since she first joined the lab, "so I have a deep attachment to the success of this project," she said. "The goal for me is to use the work that I've done to contribute to an already revolutionizing field in even the smallest way possible to show how elegant of a system CRISPR-Cas really is on a molecular level."

Terns said the attachment Kim has to her project is evident, and that she is "a remarkably invested, talented, intelligent individual with a genuine passion for her research project and professional development."

Kim mentioned her lab colleagues and Terns as critical figures in the progress of her research, and also mentioned the impressiveness of the other research projects on display during the retreat.

"There were many other incredible posters presented that day, so I'm earnestly grateful for the recognition I received for my work," she said. "Of course none of this would be possible without the support and guidance by Dr. Terns and everyone in the Terns lab that has helped me along the way."