Enzyme Activity with Abby McGillivray

My life was at a crossroads.  I was to graduate in one year’s time.  I had applications to fill out, exams to pass and the next step in my career to make.  But which ones?  There comes a point in every college student’s life when they pass a point of no return, and mine was here.  It was certain that I was going to graduate with a B.S. in Biochemistry, what wasn’t certain was what I would do with that degree once it was in my hands.  Do I belong in a graduate school or a medical school?  So here I am, over 600 miles away from home, answering that question, and having a great time doing it.

My name is Abby McGillivray, and welcome to a snippet of my life.    I grew up in Crystal Lake, IL; which is a suburb of Chicago.  There, I attended a great high school, Crystal Lake South High School, with a strong science program that fostered the budding of a passion that has carried me to this point.  When I advanced to Carroll University in Waukesha, WI (about 20 minutes away from Milwaukee, WI), I had declared the major of Biochemistry upon entry.  Not once have I changed my major, but in the past 3 years, I have gone through a slew of career ideas.  Initially, I had wanted to do cellular biology research, which then changed to medical school, then physician assistant’s school, and back to medical school.  This spring, I had gotten into more advanced biochemical studies which reignited my research desire, which in turn, derailed my strong resolve to go to medical school.  While chatting with my biochemistry professor, he suggested that I should apply to a few REU programs.  I had never heard of this program, but according to him, it was a good place to see whether the graduate student life was for me.  So apply to a few I did.  After receiving two offers, I decided to come to Fargo’s Molecular Sciences 10-week program.

Here at NDSU, I have joined Dr. DK Srivastava’s lab.  His lab contains four graduate students, Raushan Singh, Travis Leedahl, Junru Yu and Joseph Omlid, and one other undergraduate student, Dustin Mueller.  Junru is my mentor and has spent some extensive time training me on the lab’s primary proteins.  This lab works on enzymes within a class called the HDAC family.  HDAC stands for histone deacetylase, after the action that these enzymes take.  These enzymes are in charge of modifying other proteins by removing a group called an acetyl group.  Removing this group can change the overall charge of the protein enough to alter the affinity of the protein to other molecules, like DNA.  These HDAC enzymes are important to study because they interact with many important molecules found in all the tissues throughout the body from p53, a tumor suppressor protein, to hormone receptors for hormones such as estrogen and testosterone.  HDACs don’t solely work on histones, which are large proteins that DNA wraps itself around in the nucleus so that it doesn’t get tangled, but HDACs have their hands in multiple different pathways found throughout the entire cell.

My project here works with a specific subset of enzymes of the HDAC family called the sirtuin enzymes.  These proteins are different from the other HDACs because they don’t use a metal in their chemistry.  These proteins still work on important targets, such as metabolism pathways.  Due to the high profile of the enzyme targets, it has been discovered that human diseases arise due to too little or too much of a sirtuin’s activity.  I am trying to trying to find molecules that can interact with the enzymes to purposely play with the level of activity for the sirtuins.  These molecules are provided to the Srivastava group by another group on campus that spends time synthesizing them.   In our lab, we have a library of these compounds that has been built over the years of collaboration between the two labs.  It is my job to take a look at all of the possibilities, and by way of an instrument that measures the rates of the enzyme’s activity, I am to check if any of the molecules change the activity level of a specific sirtuin protein, SIRT5.  Any molecules that are found could be potential new drugs molecules to help the current medical field to help cure diseases.

I have four weeks left here to help make my decision about graduate school versus medical school.  I am sure that whatever I choose, NDSU’s program will have been a monumental help in making that choice.  In my time here, I have learned techniques and instruments that aren’t available at my home university.  I have learned that 90% of research is learning how the experiment fails, but that researchers live for that 10% that actually works.  I have learned that having a good PI can make the whole difference in a laboratory experience.  And, perhaps most importantly, I have learned that connections that you make here can be great assets to have on board for years down the road.  I have come back to the state I was born in for answers, and while my life may still be at a cross roads, with the help from the REU program, new–found friends and newly discovered strengths, I am ready to take a confident step down one of those roads.

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