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The road from history to biochemistry



Major: Chemistry –
Biochemistry option
Hometown: Durango, CO
Year: Senior

Sitting in a Chemistry 150 lecture at 8:00 am on a summer morning was the last place I thought I would ever find myself. When I started at Fort Lewis College, being a history major, I waited a long time to fulfill this general education requirement, a science with a lab. Despite my apprehension, I found the hands-on problem solving in chemistry invigorating and the panoply of research topics riveting. In the two following semesters, I took chemistry classes “just for fun,” and they led to a life-changing decision. As I continued my chemistry courses, it became clear to me that I wanted to continue my studies at the interface of chemistry and biology. This choice set my graduation date back a year, but I don’t consider my time as a history major a waste. Critical thinking and reading, clear communication, attention to detail, and contemplating multiple explanations for a trend are only a few of the skills accrued studying history that make me a better chemist.

After jumping into chemistry, I was encouraged to join Dr. Les Sommerville’s biochemistry research group. The group is studying Acidobacterium capsulatum, a bacterium cultured from an acid mine drainage and whose genome suggests complex carbohydrate metabolism. Dr. Sommerville is currently determining how these organisms metabolize sugars, with the ultimate goal of explaining Acidobacterium’s role in soils. My first assignment in this lab was to show that A. capsulatum does in fact consume glucose. This simple experiment required learning how to mix media, grow the bacteria, and perform a hexokinase-based glucose assay. Over the summer, my research became more challenging with the goal to isolate and identify water-soluble metabolites from A. capsulatum. Eventually, I was able to modify a published procedure that works for A. capsulatum using 1H-NMR to analyze the metabolites. The findings support our hypothesis that A. capsulatum utilizes at least a portion of the pentose phosphate shunt to bypass the need for aldolase.

Acidobacterium capsulatum!
Acidobacterium capsulatum!

Although I was hesitant to join Dr. Sommerville’s research group, it proved to be an invaluable learning experience. Doing independent research bolstered my confidence in the lab, showing me that I am capable of succeeding in a project, even without much of a background in the subject. I learned that even if I am unfamiliar with the necessary techniques, I can use the literature and my peers to acquire the requisite skills. Working in the lab also taught me that research doesn’t always go as planned. Failed experiments, while disappointing, provide opportunities to apply my knowledge and solve problems, making my work even more satisfying in the end.

Besides the experience in the lab, doing independent research has given me the chance to present my work to a general audience. In April 2012, I presented my preliminary research in a poster at the School of Natural and Behavioral Sciences Symposium at Fort Lewis College. And in September 2012, I explained my summer research in an oral presentation to an audience of chemistry professors, students, and community members.

My path to biochemistry was indirect, but it made me certain of what I want to do. So far, I have been very successful applying to graduate schools: I’ve been accepted to one program, have interviews at two more, and am still waiting to hear from another. In a field as competitive as chemistry, the skills that I acquired taking history and humanities classes set me apart from other applicants. I attribute much of my success to my liberal arts education and the immense support from faculty at FLC. (For more on applying to grad school, keep your eyes open for my next blog post.)

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