Delving into dual-protein system
By Brian Fitzgerald
Sarah Chobot’s research into two proteins, thioredoxin and thioredoxin reductase, has shed light on how they fight the damage that free radicals and other compounds inflict on cells. Understanding the mechanism of how these proteins work together could lead to new drugs that target the machinery enabling diseases like cancer and AIDS to progress.
Chobot’s work has recently earned her recognition on both the international and national stage. Not bad for a college senior.
On April 9, Chobot (CAS’05) was honored at the German Chemical Society’s annual Young Chemists’ Forum in Berlin for giving the best oral presentation. Chobot was the only undergraduate among the 200 students who presented their work. Her paper was entitled Electrochemical Studies of Thioredoxin and Thioredoxin Reductase: Gaining Insight into Molecular Mechanisms Affecting Oxidative Stress.
On the heels of this accomplishment, Chobot traveled to Washington, D.C., from April 17 to 19 to participate in the Council on Undergraduate Research Posters on the Hill session for students recognized as the top 50 undergraduate researchers in the United States. Nominated by BU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), Chobot presented her research at the U.S. Capitol, and met with Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Representative Phil English (D-Pa.), from her home state, as well as staff of the office of Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.). “It was a great chance for students in the science community to lobby for funding and to show legislators what undergraduate researchers can do,” she says.
Undergraduate research, of course, enables students to collaborate with faculty and absorb existing scientific knowledge. But it can also lead to new knowledge — in Chobot’s case, providing a glimpse into how certain proteins serve as antioxidants in cells. Her work explores the fundamental reactivity of thioredoxin and thioredoxin reductase, proteins that work in tandem to fight oxidative stress in all cells. In her most recent research project, she used an electrochemical technique to learn about the principles that determine the proteins’ chemistry.
“Her experiments have shown that we can understand the capabilities of thioredoxin proteins at a very high level of detail,” says Sean Elliott, a CAS assistant professor of chemistry and Chobot’s faculty mentor in the project. “As thioredoxins are found everywhere and are important molecules in many diseases involving oxidative stress — such as cancer, diabetes, cardiac disease, and HIV/AIDS — we are very excited about the application of Sarah’s results to a wide range of biochemical and biomedical science.”
Chobot came to work in Elliot’s lab after consulting with Amy Bradley, then a postdoctoral fellow in chemistry. “The research in our group is a very collaborative endeavor,” Elliott says. “Sarah interacts with others in the research group well, and she has a great science background. It was a great fit.”
Mentoring Chobot “has been incredibly rewarding for me,” he says, “in part because of her clear experimental success — but mostly because her success, just like her project, is her own.”
Chobot is excited about the potential practical applications of her group’s research. “If we can understand how these proteins transfer electrons and how they work mechanistically, then we may be able to contribute to understanding how to inhibit them,” she says. “In the cases where the proteins are harmful — for example, they’re implicated in the progression of cancer — then, in collaboration with groups that are doing total synthesis, we can develop potential drugs that can target the proteins.”
Chobot started her freshman year as an English major. But when she took a general chemistry course, she became enthralled by the subject. “The more chemistry courses I took, the more interested in science I became,” she says. She switched majors as a sophomore and joined a chemistry research group.
She will graduate with a minor in English, however, and she is sure that what she has learned in English courses helps her communicate her research results more effectively. “When you’re giving a presentation, you’re telling a story,” she says. “There’s a beginning, a middle, and an ending. I like to think that I have a good perspective in terms of what the overall story is.”
In September, Chobot will enter the University of Pennsylvania’s biomedical studies program as a graduate student in biochemistry. “As a graduating senior, she is being recognized for her knowledge and style in ways that she could never have imagined happening” when she was an underclassman, says CAS Chemistry Professor Morton Hoffman, who taught Chobot when she was a freshman in his General and Quantitative Analytical Chemistry course.
Hoffman says that Chobot’s recent recognition in Berlin was an accomplishment bordering on the unimaginable. “The 200 participants represented some of the best and brightest chemistry students in Germany and other countries,” he says. “The competition for the awards, while not the primary motivation to attend, is clearly not lost on the students. To be chosen first-prize winner among the oral presenters is a great achievement. To do so as an undergraduate in competition with graduate students who are older and more experienced is almost beyond expectation.”