Bryan Ho and Zachary Ellis (from left), biochemistry majors at WVU Honors College, make up the third and final cohort of the Beckman Scholars Program, a 15-month mentored competitive research experience for exceptional undergraduates in chemistry, biological sciences, and interdisciplinary. combinations of the two.
Two West Virginia University undergraduate students will spend the next year conducting funded research to better understand neurodegenerative diseases and inflammatory responses in respiratory diseases as part of the Beckman Fellows Program.
Biochemistry majors Zachary Ellis, a native of Renick, and Bryan Ho, a native of Martinsburg, were named to WVU’s third and final cohort for this award, which was initially presented to the University in 2020. Both are members of the WVU Honors College .
WVU is among the top 12 research universities in the United States selected for the competitive program. Awarded by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, the 15-month guided research experience is for exceptional undergraduates in chemistry, the biological sciences, or interdisciplinary combinations of the two.
Ellis and Ho will receive a stipend of $18,200 for their research and $2,800 for supplies or travel to present at conferences. His faculty mentors will receive stipends of $5,000.
“Zachary and Bryan are extremely talented student researchers who recognized the importance of the scientific process early in their academic careers,” said Amy Hessl, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. “Participating in the Beckman Scholarship Program will allow them to advance their knowledge and skills, as well as prepare them for rewarding scientific careers.”
As a freshman at WVU, Ellis wasn’t sure where he wanted to be in four years, or even beyond, but he knew he loved science and wanted to explore undergraduate research opportunities.
Participating in the Inquiry Learning Program during his first year on campus set Ellis on a path of self-discovery. It also gave him the skills he needed to become a Beckman Scholar.
While exploring mentor and lab options, Ellis found Justin Legleiter, professor of chemistry at Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, and his biophysical chemistry research lab.
“That means biology, physics and chemistry,” Ellis said. “I liked all three of them, so I thought maybe this was a good place to be. I was able to apply my interest in science in a way that I had never really considered, which allowed me to discover my passion for research.”
His initial research project focused on the development of techniques and protocols to measure mechanical changes in biological samples and allowed him to move easily into this new endeavor.
As a Beckman Fellow, Ellis hopes to better understand Huntington’s disease by studying the changes exhibited in Caenorhabditis elegansMicroscopic roundworms are often used in aging studies because they exhibit specific mechanical changes as they age.
Huntington’s disease is a rare hereditary disease that causes progressive degradation of nerve cells in the brain. Ellis will compare the changes in C. elegans with pathogenic and non-pathogenic Huntington protein fragments.
According to Legleiter, there are several advantages to using the tiny transparent worms, including a shorter lifespan, ease of maintenance, and the ability to use fluorescent microscopy.
“The other really cool thing is that the C. elegans model we used expresses huntingtin proteins in peripheral tissues rather than just nervous systems,” he said. “Many model species for Huntington’s disease only exhibit it in neurons, but we can see how mutant huntingtin is in peripheral tissues, which hasn’t really been studied that much. Provides more sense of novelty to the investigation. It could also further our understanding of the impact of huntingtin aggregation on peripheral systems.”
Ultimately, Ellis hopes his research can be a building block in identifying more treatment options.
“At this time, there is no cure for Huntington’s disease. There are treatment options, but they are incredibly limited,” she said. “If the work that we do can contribute to the overall problem there, that’s really what we’re trying to accomplish.”
As a philosophy of life, Ho believes that everything he wants is “on the other side of fear” and he needs a series of “uncomfortable yeses” to achieve his goals.
He recalls an advanced chemistry lab during his first year where he accidentally broke an unusually high number of beakers and had difficulty following all the protocols.
“I was interested in research and didn’t want to do something in a traditional lab. I thought it would just break everything again,” she said. “I had no experience when I started. It was the biggest learning curve.”
Now a more confident and experienced senior in research, Ho said “yes” to a program that will fund a computational research project that could lead to the discovery of new, affordable drugs to reduce inflammatory responses in people with respiratory disease. such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Beside blake mertzassociate professor of chemistry, is working to characterize the structure-function relationship of the platelet-activating factor receptor, a protein that is responsible for the primary inflammatory response in many respiratory diseases.
Working with a library of 50,000 ligands, small molecules that bind irreversibly to the target protein, the researchers will use molecular docking and molecular dynamics simulations to observe how the platelet-activating factor receptor responds to each molecule.
The computational approach will help researchers map structure-function relationships as well as identify candidates for drug development.
“Experimentally screening such a large ligand database would require an enormous amount of time and effort,” Mertz said. “By tackling the problem with computational approaches, we can reduce the time to identify viable ligands to around a year. That makes this not only a great research project, but one that fits well with the Beckman Fellowship Program schedule.”
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