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Students selected for the 2022 Woese Research Scholar Program

BY Ananya Sen

Zubin Havewala and Garrett McPheron have been selected for the Carl R. Woese Undergraduate Research Scholar Program. They will carry out research projects over a 10-week period over the summer. The students will be supported by a stipend from the IGB and the goal is to inspire them to pursue important scientific questions.

Zubin Havewala, Garrett McPheron
Zubin Havewala, left, and Garrett McPheron have been selected for the 2022 Carl R. Woese Undergraduate Research Scholar Program.

Havewala is pursuing a degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering. In Spring 2021 he joined the Sirk lab (MME), which focuses on engineering microbes that can be used as therapeutics. These bacteria become lodged in specific regions of the body and produce antibodies. Over the past few semesters, Havewala has been working on single-chain variable fragment proteins, which are fragments that link the heavy and light chains in antibodies.

“I have always been drawn to research and I love being able to discover new things,” Havewala said. “When I learned about biotechnology in high school, I immediately thought “that's what I want to do.” I like it because it has the power to improve countless lives.”

Over the summer, Havewala will engineer two bacteria—Lactobacillus casei and Corynebacterium glutamicum—to secrete therapeutic antibody fragments. L. casei lives in the gut and in the human respiratory tract whereas C. glutamicum is not associated with either, but is commonly used in industries as a model organism. The challenge with engineering these bacteria will be to ensure that they can secrete the fragments at high levels, which Havewala will be measuring.

Havewala is interested in going to graduate school, although he is not sure whether he would like to eventually join an academic position or one in the industry. “I know that I like doing research in biotechnology and hopefully that will be my career path,” he said.

McPheron is pursuing a bioengineering degree with a specialty in cell and tissue engineering. He joined the Gaj lab (BSD) in January 2021 where he helped his graduate mentor use CRISPR to modify proteins associated with Huntington's disease, which causes a breakdown of nerve cells in the brain.

Over the summer, McPheron will be focusing on Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a debilitating disorder that is characterized by the loss of motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord, leading to muscle atrophy, paralysis, and death. Unfortunately, there is no cure and the standard therapies do not help.

McPheron will use CRISPR-Cas9 nucleases to modify the expression of SOD1, which is present in a mutated form in 20% of ALS cases. The mutant gene can cause disruptions by triggering protein misfolding, oxidative stress, inflammation, and several other cellular dysfunctions. “We are looking at how to optimize these base editors to prevent off-target effects during gene editing,” McPheron said.

“I like the collaborative aspect of science. Everyone I work with loves science and I love talking to them about it and learning new ideas and skills,” he added. “I can definitely see myself continuing to do research. I plan on applying in Fall 2023 and I am interested in labs that work on genetic engineering, gene therapy, tissue engineering, and regenerative medicine.”

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