Donned in goggles and a white lab coat bearing his name, Dr. Paul Martino, professor of biochemistry at Houghton College, addresses two student researchers as they prepare and insert a chemical sample into the college’s mass spectrometer. The three chat as they wait patiently for the final data, eyes occasionally glancing at a computer screen that is flickering with the mass spectrometer’s fluctuating chemical signals. Thirty minutes later, they have their final data set.
Martino – along with senior Jennifer Pond of Pittsford, NY and junior Gregory Ballard of Canandaigua, NY – is part of Houghton’s innovative Summer Research Institute (SRI). The trio joins eight other major research teams that combine faculty expertise with hands-on experiential learning, taking students’ knowledge beyond the classroom and into the lab.
Ballard, Martino, and Pond investigated how proteins interact, specifically how they bind and form aggregates. Several diseases – including Alzheimer’s, a silent killer that Martino has researched previously – are associated with proteins binding together in unhealthy ways and interfering with correct cell function. They create protein oligomers (molecular complexes) that enter the cells and interfere with proper function.
In order to observe and understand the transition into these aggregates, Martino’s team ‘painted’ molecules. Their 'paint,' which is actually a small, unstable molecule species called carbene, labels the oligomers based on the topography. The team used two types of proteins – melittin, a honey bee toxin, and BBAT2, the smallest known protein arranged in multiple subunits – to try to block the ‘paint.’ The goal of the process was to create a working method and move to the next step of research, which included testing resveratrol (a compound found in grapes that is thought to combat aggregation) in the same manner to determine its effectiveness as a blocker.
Should the method prove effective, other scientists can replicate it and discover more compounds that block these damaging proteins and advance the fight against associated diseases.
“The hands-on work we did added a new dimension to my learning and helped me acquire skills that are important in real-world settings,” notes Ballard. “I am thrilled to have played a small role in research that may someday have a real impact on people’s lives.”
The Summer Research Institute has offered unique research opportunities for more than 100 students since its 2007 inception. In 2016 SRI was named one of the Top 50 Best College Summer Programs in the Country by Best College Reviews, joining Ivy League schools such as Columbia and Yale.