Thoughts on Theses: Yusrah Kaudeer

Yusrah Kaudeer ’21 is a chemistry and math double major from Mauritius. Her thesis investigates alpha-crystallin: a protein in the eye whose malfunctioning causes cataracts. Kaudeer has investigated this protein since her first year at the college and is advised by Amanda and Lisa Cross Professor of Chemistry Patricia B. O’Hara. Kaudeer will be continuing her research in graduate school at CalTech. 

Q: Can you give me a timeline of your academic journey thus far? 

A: For my freshman and sophomore years, I was here at Amherst, and I had heard about the 2-1-1-1 engineering program at Dartmouth. The program gives you the option to study at Dartmouth for your junior year and also for a fifth year after graduation if you’re interested in getting a Bachelor in Science from Dartmouth. So, I spent the whole of my junior year at Dartmouth, and I’m choosing not to go back for the optional fifth year. But the program really aided me in my thesis research. I learned a lot of techniques there that I’m using in my thesis right now. And they’re techniques I wouldn’t have learned if I’d just stayed at Amherst.

Q: I’m not a STEM person, like many of our readers. But if you can, can you explain in plain English what your thesis is about?

A: Actually, at Dartmouth, I wrote a paper called “Your Research Paper for the Public,” so I know how to explain it! The lens of your eye is clear because of a specific protein (alpha-crystallin) — when that protein malfunctions, it causes cataracts. Basically, I’m trying to understand how that protein works in different environments, and specifically, I’m focusing on the effect of pH (whether the eye is alkaline or acidic or neutral). I’m trying to understand which pH environments alpha-crystallin functions best in and why that is because your eye doesn’t have a fixed pH — it actually changes as you get older. 

Q: What does your research methodology look like?

A: I make four solutions, each of which has a different pH value. Each solution is clear, and then to mimic the cataract, I use insulin. We’ve done a lot of research on insulin, and we know that by adding DTT (dithiothreitol) to the insulin, it’ll mimic protein aggregation and make the solution cloudy. Then, I take what we call the “chaperone” — the alpha-crystallin protein — and I add that to each solution. After adding the chaperone, I essentially measure the extent to which the cloudiness disappears.

Q: How did you get involved in this research?

A: My [first] year, I applied to SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship). I was open to doing research in any of the labs, honestly, but I was chosen to work in [Amanda and Lisa Cross] Professor [of Chemistry Patricia] O’Hara’s lab. She assigned me this project. At that point, I was a freshman, and I didn’t have that much knowledge about the topic, so that summer, a big chunk of my time was just devoted to literature review.

Q: What compelled you to continue with this research for the following three years? 

A: I don’t know if you know, but outside the U.S., one of the leading causes of blindness is cataracts because a lot of countries don’t have easy access to surgery. This research is really important because, if we understand how alpha-crystallin works, we can develop nonsurgical methods of dealing with cataracts. For example, we could maybe design an eyedrop that clears up cataracts. That’s way in the future, but I’m hoping that my research will contribute a little bit to that. My grandparents actually both had cataracts and had to undergo expensive surgery. We’re always looking for better ways to deal with this.

Q: Have you reached any conclusions?

A: The chaperone does very well at a pH of 6.5, which is the pH of our eyes most of the time. At other pH levels, it doesn’t do so well, so that’s prompted me to ask even more questions. For instance, when the pH varies like that, I need to know what our eye does and what the protein does.

Q: Seeing as you’ve been researching this for so long, how have your research questions evolved over time?

A:  I remember while writing my proposal last fall, I had one question, which was trying to understand how the chaperone assembles at different pHs. But now what I’m looking at is another protein called alpha-synuclein, because I found out that the chaperone’s functioning depends on the other proteins it’s interacting with. Moving forward, we need to understand how alpha-crystallin interacts with other proteins before we can jump to bigger conclusions about how it’s performing in the eye. So my questions have changed a lot.

Q: How have the changes brought about by Covid-19 affected your research?

A: Last summer, everything was remote and I didn’t have access to the lab. But that actually helped me dive into the literature and develop a more specific plan for how I would proceed in the fall. I also had the time to introduce a junior to my project. We met twice a week to do a literature review, and I basically gave her a crash course on my thesis. Even now, she’s helping me so much with my findings by doing a lot of the literature work for me. It’s been very gratifying to be able to trust her with this project and pass it down to her. So while I couldn’t be in the lab this summer, it was still really productive.

Q: What does your support system look like, in terms of your thesis and all the challenges it presents? 

A: Because I’m an international student, my adviser (Professor O’Hara) has always been like a motherly figure for me. She comforts me when I’m homesick, she’s invited the lab team to her house for a meal and she’s written me letters of recommendation that helped me get into grad school. Also, everyone in my friend group is writing a thesis, so they’re my support group in a sense. We sit down and write together and work together. 

Q: On a personal level, what have you learned from the thesis-writing process?

A: When you’re doing scientific research, you fail 99 percent of the time. I realized that one of the most important skills to have as a scientist is the ability to troubleshoot because everything is always going wrong! Researching has made me a much more resilient person. And the process has helped me grow in an academic way in that I was able to really narrow down my research interest. Now I know exactly what I want to do in the future, and naturally, that’s helped so much when applying to grad school. 

Q: What has been the most rewarding part of the process so far?

A: Getting reproducible results was a big win for me. I’ve been able to get extremely consistent results, and when I applied to grad school and said that in my interview, they were really impressed. Even simpler things have been rewarding, like earlier this semester when I printed out all the work I’d done so far and just felt it in my hands. 

Q: What advice would you give to a younger student thinking about writing a thesis?

A: If you really like a professor, you should set up a meeting with them and ask them about their research. They’ll be very open about it. And if it sounds interesting, you can ask to join a lab as early as your freshman fall. I wish I did that in my freshman fall instead of waiting until the summer because the earlier you start, the better you get at the research you’re doing.