BU Undergraduate Garners International Recognition for Research on Protein System in Cells

Contact: Ann Marie Menting, 617/353-2240 | amenting@bu.edu

(Boston) — Why and how cells deal with free-radical compounds that damage or kill them got a little less mysterious this past year. Boston University chemistry senior Sarah Chobot’s research on two proteins, thioredoxin and thioredoxin reductase, has shed some light on how they fight the damage that free radicals and other compounds inflict on cells. Thioredoxins are important molecules in diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS. Recently, Chobot’s work on this dual-protein system has earned her recognition on both the international and national stage.

Chobot’s recent presentation of her research at the 2005 spring symposium of the Young Chemists Conference (JungChemikerForum) in Berlin garnered her a first-place award for best oral presentation, an accomplishment made more significant by the fact that the win marked the first time an undergraduate had received an award of any sort at this annual international graduate student conference.

Participants in the conference make oral or poster presentations of their work to conference goers, and the best contributions are selected by a jury of professors and chemical industry representatives. Chobot will receive a cash prize of approximately $300 and travel to the scientific conference of her choice during the coming year.

Following her success in Berlin, Chobot will next present her research to Capitol Hill lawmakers, funding officers, and guests as part of the Council of Undergraduate Research’s “Posters on the Hill” presentation. The event on April 19 will feature 60 undergraduates whose research was competitively selected as among the top conducted by undergraduates from across the U.S. Chobot will represent Boston University.

Chobot’s research into the dual-protein system — called the thioredoxin/thioredoxin reductase system — demonstrates directly how the cellular protein system prevents the proliferation of free radicals, which can harm DNA and cause cells to die or grow abnormally. Understanding the mechanism of how these proteins work together could lead to new drugs that target the machinery that enables diseases like cancer and AIDS to progress.

“Sarah had a very clear desire to work on a project of her own,” says her faculty mentor Sean Elliott, an assistant professor in BU’s Department of Chemistry. “I think she has been successful because of her very careful approach to science, her sense of drive, and her dedication to excellence.”

Chobot says her project is “exciting because no one has ever studied this phenomenon directly before.” In past experiments, the electrical and chemical properties of this protein system were inferred from other experiments. Chobot’s research looks directly at how the protein system is affected by changes in pH, temperature, and other factors. Understanding how this inhibitor system works against free radicals and other compounds that cause disease by damaging or killing cells could lead to new drug treatments.

The spring symposium is part of the annual Young Chemists Conference, sponsored by Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (GDCh), the German society of chemists, the largest chemistry-specific organization in continental Europe. The 2005 conference was held in Berlin April 7–9.

The Washington, D.C.-based Council on Undergraduate Research is a national association representing faculty and administrators at nearly 1,000 academic institutions. Together with governmental and private partners, the Council facilitates collaborative research by undergraduate students and their faculty mentors. Boston University holds an institutional membership with the Council that is coordinated through BU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP).

Faculty in BU’s Department of Chemistry, part of the university’s College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, address issues in theoretical chemistry, chemical physics, photochemistry, inorganic and organic chemistry, physical chemistry, and biochemistry. Boston University, the nation’s fourth largest independent university, has an enrollment of more than 29,000 in its 17 schools and colleges.