Science students excel in summer research


Amy Funk and Sahej Bains

Sahej Baines (left), a Biological Sciences junior, and Chemistry graduate student Amy Funk pose with their awards received for their excellence in the 2016 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program.

Biological Sciences junior Sahej Bains may still have two years left in her undergraduate studies but she can already put “award-winning research” on her resume.

Bains was among a few College of Science students that showed well at the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) awards Aug. 5. She received an award of excellence for her work in Chemistry Prof. Christine Hrycyna’s lab.

“Mutational and Biochemical Analysis of Isoprenylcysteine Carboxyl Methyltransferase (ICMT)” adds to Hrycyna’s overarching work on finding treatments to pancreatic cancer. Fellow Bio undergrad Chirag Patel won the same award for his “Using Pupillometry to Characterize Visual Perception in Autistic Mouse Models” project in Prof. Alex Chubykin’s lab.

“We are trying to find the binding site of ICMT,” Bains said, “so that our collaborators can work with us to design drugs that will inhibit that specific site because ICMT is an enzyme that’s involved in the Ras (protein) processing pathway.”

Bains dove into the project within Brown Laboratory of Chemistry in June. The West Lafayette native was eager to see what the experience was like. She crossed disciplines but the work was a natural fit.

“I’m into research,” Bains stated. “I’m thinking about med school but maybe I’ll also do a PhD. I wanted to try out research fulltime to see if I’ll like it.”

Bains, Hrycyna and Chemistry graduate student Amy Funk were pleased with Bains’ results and work ethic. Bains researched directly under Funk and the senior scientist was impressed with the undergrad.

“She’s amazing,” Funk said. “She’s really made progress on this project, which is a very hard protein to work with because it is a membrane protein. She has excelled at everything I’ve let her do.”

Bains got to work with biochemistry equipment and processes for the first time: pipettes, polymerase chain reaction, western blot, restriction enzymes. She also gained that valuable lab experience of troubleshooting when things went wrong.

She was elated when she obtained interesting results during her investigation into the aggressive targeting of the Ras protein. A lot of work was put into mutating several important residues within the ICMT enzyme to analyze regions that may be binding the Ras protein.

“Ras is known to be overactive in 90 percent of pancreatic cancers,” Bains explained. “We tested the ICMT mutants for their expression and activities. We found out that L190A was only 44 percent active … . We thought it was really interesting how inactive it was compared to wild type.”

Funk has her own branch of work under Hrycyna’s. Funk is striving to characterize the isoprenoid building site of the yeast ICMT using creative biochemical techniques.

Bains nominated Funk for a SURF Graduate Mentor of the Summer Award and Funk came away with the hononor. She was elated to help a younger student discover the wonders and benefits of undergraduate research. Funk was in Bains’ place several years ago.

Bains decided to stick around in Hrycyna’s lab this fall to continue her analysis on the enzyme.

“She’ll keep working with me,” Funk said with pride.

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