Samuel Grondin ’21 is a biochemistry and biophysics major. He is writing a thesis on the discovery of small and previously unknown proteins in the bacteria pseudomonas aeruginosa, which could prove crucial in fighting hospital-acquired infections. His thesis advisor is Assistant Professor of Biology Mona Wu Orr.
Q: What is your thesis about?
A: I work in [Assistant Professor of Biology] Mona Wu Orr’s lab. She’s one of the new biochemistry professors this year. My thesis is on pseudomonas aeruginosa, and I think to the non-scientist, the best context for that is that it’s a common culprit in hospital-acquired infections. It often infects young children with cystic fibrosis, people who have open burn wounds or people who have had a medical device put in. I’m looking for new, small proteins [in this bacterium]. People used to think that proteins had to be a certain size to actually be encoded by a gene, [so] I’m looking for proteins that are smaller than people typically might expect in pseudomonas.
Q: You mentioned that proteins are a way to combat the bacteria, but they’re also found in the bacteria?
A: Yes, they’re found in the bacteria. I would say it’s an area we don’t necessarily know a lot about, so it’s good for basic research in that we want to understand the physiology of pseudomonas a bit better. These things haven’t been thoroughly investigated in the past, so this is a good place to start. To your point, the research could have translational applications down the line in thinking about infections because they give us a better understanding of how the bacteria live and thrive and how we might think about combating infections in humans.
Q: How did you become interested in this topic?
A: I took a microbiology course here at Amherst taught by [Associate Professor of Biology] Alex Purdy when I was a sophomore. At the time, I was still just being introduced to biology; it was my second biology course. But I was really fascinated by bacteria right away, so I started in her research lab that same year. Her lab works on a clove of different bacteria species that I studied for about a year. Then for my thesis, I wanted to do something that was a bit more translational and had more clinical applications to human health, so I decided to move to Professor Wu Orr’s lab because she was just starting here, and the species we work on does have those applications.
Q: What are some of the clinical applications to human health that you referenced? If you were to find small proteins in the unexplored area, what are the possibilities for that kind of discovery?
A: So in E. coli, they’ve actually found a small protein that has some relationship to antibiotic resistance. I think most people are aware that antibiotic resistance is a growing problem, especially in the clinical setting and with the pseudomonas species. Pseudomonas have a lot of intrinsic antibiotic resistance, so infections can be really difficult to treat. I don’t want to get too research-heavy, but the small protein that was found in E. coli informs our research a lot because we think [that] there might be a similar protein in pseudomonas. That’s one of the targets I’m going after, and if I’m able to find that, which it looks like we might just have, it could represent a potential druggable target down the line for researchers.
Q: How has your lab work been impacted by Covid-19?
A: It’s been really difficult. I was on campus last semester, but normally thesis students working in labs have the summer before to start getting some research done, which is usually a really great space to get a lot of adjustment to the lab out of the way, [but] I didn’t really have that. I was writing when I was at home, and then I started research when I got into the lab in late August or early September. I think I would have also been here longer in January [if he had been able to return to campus]. It was a dual-challenge because we were [also] starting this new lab at Amherst, and we didn’t have a lot of the chemicals or supplies that we needed. There have been shortages due to Covid, especially in DNA work. A lot of molecular biology reagents that are used pretty commonly are in short supply right now. I even think that lab gloves are in short supply. It’s definitely been difficult. [Nonetheless], the college has been really great about letting us get into the lab. I was able to get a special exemption from the college to come during [quarantine] because I maintain living organisms, so I’ve been able to get experiments done, but it has been a challenge.
Q: What was it like doing research and writing at home?
A: It was mostly lit reviews, [which entails] going through all of the available literature on my thesis topic and then trying to figure out which direction my project was going to take and starting to write the introduction.
Q: I’m sure there were a lot of times where it was quite frustrating not having access to a lab over the summer.
A: Absolutely. Even coming back for January, I quarantined for a week [when I arrived on campus], and I was really wishing during that time that I could get going. I got back [to campus] on January 18th.
Q: How has your relationship with your advisor helped you move through this process?
A: My advisor is Professor Wu Orr, and we’ve gotten really close. We work really well together and she has been amazing about spending a lot of time with me, even though we have to be six feet apart and masked. She’s been really good about being here and being present, and helping me through my research, partly because she’s a new professor and is committed to her new lab, but she’s also committed to my success. I was also applying to graduate school at the same time, so we’ve also been working together on what I’m going to do after Amherst, and that support has been critical. I probably would have just crashed and burned if I tried to do everything on my own.
Q: Inside the lab, what does the student-professor relationship look like?
A: We think about the direction my project is going and experiments that would be good to run together, so we do a lot of experimental design when we have discussions during weekly meetings. We think about what I’ve done, where I need to go and then design experiments for the week. If I’m doing something for the first time, typically my advisor will do it side-by-side with me. [If I’ve done an experiment before], then I’m doing it on my own.
Q: After you complete this research what will you be pursuing next?
A: The application process is over for me. I’m getting my Ph.D. in pharmacology starting in the fall. I wanted to do research with a clinical application, so I think I’ve gradually moved in that direction. I was supposed to intern with a pharmaceutical company last summer, but because of Covid, it was postponed until this summer. I’ve always wanted to be in the pharmaceutical space, so I decided to apply to pharmacology programs for my doctorate and I’m really excited I get to go and do that.
Q: What are some of the joys of doing your research?
A: I really do love being in the lab. When you’re writing a bio thesis, a lot of what you do the first semester is getting things prepared, so I was spending most of last semester cloning genetically engineered bacterial strains, which takes a lot of time. We have to speed through [that process] in our first semester, but I started doing experiments this January. We finally got our first real data [set] that I can actually put into my thesis as data this week, and it’s the first lab data too because the lab is brand new. That was really exciting and brought me and my advisor a lot of joy.