Drugs and Cells
Chemistry and biology students work across disciplines to explore independent research questions
Two scientists huddle over a computer. On the screen is a list of prices next to the names of chemical compounds and they’re discussing what they need to buy in order to conduct a new experiment. Someone else enters the room in a white lab coat, checking in with the group while his experiment finishes up in the lab upstairs. At the back of the room, Prof. Funk speaks with a small group sitting at lab tables as Prof. Brandauer comes over to greet me.
The room’s energy feels akin to that of a professional pharmaceutical lab, but I’ve just walked into an undergraduate class, CHEM-359 X-lab: Drugs and Cells, co-taught by chemistry Prof. Tim Funk and health sciences Prof. Josef Brandauer. The course is part of the Cross-Disciplinary Science Institute at Gettysburg College (X-SIG), made possible through a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and, more recently, by a gift made from the estate of Harrison Dickson ’48.
“I love Excel spreadsheets,” says Brandauer, turning to speak with Kathryn Fodale ’16 and Katherine Boas ’16, the two scientists who I saw checking prices on the computer when I first walked in. “Tell me what you’re looking to buy, the price, and why you need it so we can discuss if you really do need it or if we can do what you need with something we already have in the lab.”
Fodale and Boas are in the process of figuring out how to conduct an experiment that will allow them to determine the impact of a compound’s structure on its biological activity. More specifically, they’re modifying the structure of resveratrol—a compound found in the skin of grapes and red wine that may be linked with positive health benefits—to determine whether or not there is an effect on mitochondrial function in cells.
The other lab partners scattered about the room are working on individual projects of their own design. They picked partners based on major—so ideally one partner has a chemistry background, and the other, biology. In this pair, Fodale is the chemist—she’s interested in organic synthetic chemistry—and Boas is the biologist, interested in microbiology and infectious diseases.
“What we are having students do is everything, really,” says Funk. “They have to understand both the chemistry and the biology. What no single person does at a pharmaceutical company—they are learning it all.”
This is the second X-SIG class to be offered at Gettysburg, preceded by Salty and Fatty, which was a course focused on the intersection of physics and chemistry. Funk and Brandauer divided the semester into two parts: the synthesis, isolation, and characterization of a derivative of a known, biologically active organic compound (resveratrol); and the assessment of its effect on cellular biology.
At no point would you walk into the lab and see learning happening in the form of students listening to a lecture from Brandauer or Funk standing at the front of the room. It’s all hands-on and driven by the students. From the first day of the course, students were asked to come up with their own derivative of the compound resveratrol, and in the second semester they were asked to propose and run experiments testing the biological activity of the derivative they synthesized.
“What I really like about this class is we were given the freedom to come up with [our experiment design], we explained it to our professors, who liked it,” said Fodale, “and now we need to figure out how to make it happen.”
Beyond bringing their research designs to fruition, these students are contributing new ideas with practical implications. By the end of the class, Fodale and Boas will not only have investigated the molecular mechanisms of resveratrol, but also developed a better understanding of how to enhance its therapeutic benefits.
“For me, some of the techniques these students are developing I can use in my lab, in my research,” said Brandauer. “One thing I really like about this course is we are asking students to become experts in an experimental technique.”
In the future, Funk and Brandauer said a third course will join the X-SIG series—the topic to be determined—and the Salty and Fatty course will be offered again next year on rotation.
“The endowed gift from Dickson is what’s allowing us to continue offering these innovative X-SIG lab courses that were originally made possible by the HHMI grant,” said Funk.
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Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
Contact: Carina Sitkus, senior assistant director of communications, 717.337.6803
Posted: Wed, 20 Apr 2016
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