Tackling World Hunger, Molecule by Molecule

If you’ve never done undergraduate research in your life and wonder if it’s really only glorified busy work, trust the words of one of UCSB’s five Nobel Prize winners: “It isn’t just ‘make-work,’” says Herbert Kroemer, professor of electrical and computer engineering and of materials, who received the 2000 prize for physics. “Undergraduate projects arise in the context of bona-fide research. Students’ findings contribute to solving questions no one has been able to answer before. In fact, that’s often the most exciting part of the work.”

You can also trust the take of Susan Cohen, who graduated from UCSB with honors in microbiology. “I enjoyed the undergraduate research I did because it was challenging,” says Susan. Her research addressed food-spoilage problems, which are particularly important in the developing world, where large portions of hard-won harvests are often lost because of scant refrigeration and poor transportation. Professor Rolf E. Christoffersen and Susan investigated the mechanism of an enzyme that produces the plant hormone ethylene, which helps regulate plant development, including fruit ripening. Professor Christoffersen’s future findings could lead to new food-storage strategies and dramatically increase the nutritional quality of food supplies for millions of people.

As part of her inquiry, which focused on the critical amino acid residues involved when the substrate binds to the enzyme, Susan engineered proteins by using DNA mutation techniques and computer modeling. Not only was her research anything but “busy-work,” it produced valuable information about the plant enzyme Professor Christofferson is investigating.

Finding The Fast Track to Protein Engineering

Susan became interested in biology during high school in Cerritos, California; as an honors student at UCSB, she enrolled in the Introduction to Research course through the California Alliance for Minority Participation in Creative Activities (CAMP) program for academic credit. Later on, when she wanted experience doing undergraduate research, she asked the biology department for a list of faculty researchers and their projects, was intrigued by Professor Christoffersen’s work, and asked whether she might assist in his lab. He suggested that she send a brief funding proposal to UCSB’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative activities (URCA). The result: CAMP awarded her a scholarship amounting to $1,500 for three academic quarters.

Susan’s undergraduate research is paying off in other ways. She became one of nine UCSB juniors and seniors who presented their research in a CAMP undergraduate research symposium at the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering’s Beckman Conference Center, at UC Irvine. The UCSB group included mathematics professor Kenneth Millett, CAMP regional director, and six UCSB freshmen (and potential presenters) who found information as well as inspiration.

An Investment That Yields Major Dividends

Susan’s research experiences also were a key addition to her graduate-school applications. The winner of her department’s Bernice M. Sweeney Award in the Biological Sciences, she was accepted at CalTech, Princeton, and M.I.T., and is now attending M.I.T. for her doctoral studies in biology.