Sydney Schneider, Assistant Professor Matt Cremeens and Javier Gonzalez discuss the molecular structure of peptides, the subject of their research.

By Marny Lombard

Senior Javier Gonzalez connects a slender syringe to delicate tubing that emerges from a boxy piece of scientific equipment called a mass spectrometer.

His syringe contains a polymer of amino acids – or a peptide – that Gonzalez and his research partner, junior Sydney Schneider, have synthesized from chemical compounds. For their research, the two biochemistry majors first must verify that they have created the right peptide. The information produced by the mass spectrometer will either confirm that or tell them that they have erred in their synthesis. Later in their work, they will use other instruments to learn more about the structure of their peptides.

Mass spectrometers such as this one – known among chemists as a “triple quad” – are rarely found in undergraduate research settings. In the last two years, Gonzaga has acquired three mass spectrometers of different types, all three via two National Science Foundation grants spear-headed by Associate Professor Jennifer Shepherd and Assistant Professor Eric Ross. Students use these pieces of equipment for advanced lab classes and while they work on faculty-supervised research. Assistant Professor Matt Cremeens is leading Gonzalez and Schneider’s summer research. Cremeens emphasizes that this is student-centered work, not faculty research.

Gonzalez nudges the syringe into position alongside the mass spectrometer. He touches a switch and sits back. In a moment, the peptide sample will emerge inside the mass spectrometer as an aerosol spray. The instrument will use electrical and electromagnetic fields to measure the mass and electrical charges of individual particles in the mixture. Those measurements will allow Gonzalez and Schneider to confirm the chemical makeup of the sample.

Chains of amino acids are peptides and some serve as neuropeptides. Neurons in the brain use neuropeptides to signal each other. Gonzalez and Schneider’s task as research assistants is to understand the underlying structure of their selected neuropeptides.

The practical application of this work could be important. Certain neuropeptides also have the ability to attack micro-organisms such as E. coli bacteria. If scientists can learn how neuropeptides attack or resist micro-organisms, they may be able to make valuable medical advances. First, though, scientists must learn how the neuropeptides are structured.

To Gonzalez and Schneider, the larger picture is the educational benefit of their research experience. “This is the late stage of undergraduate scientific teaching in the contemporary sense,” Cremeens said. “This is where students become intimate with trials and tribulations of working science.” And in 2010, that requires more than test tubes and Bunsen burners.

Halfway through the Gonzaga Summer Research Program, Schneider has both frustrations and successes to share. Sometimes the mass spectrometer delivers bad news. “It takes a lot of time to create these peptides and sometimes it can be frustrating, troubleshooting what didn’t work,” she said.

But she also has enjoyed her successes in the lab. And she feels buoyed by her research advisor in ways that will help her in graduate studies, when she will be immersed in several years of research.

“Dr. Cremeens goes beyond anything I expected. He helps with my research in ways that will go beyond Gonzaga,” Schneider said. “He works with me so I can be my best.”

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