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Spring 2008 - Biochemistry

Destination Purdue > Spring 2008 - Biochemistry

For biochemistry major, lab work is 'cool'

By Inez Ponce de Leon

You don't always hear "cool" and "“biochemistry" in the same sentence, but for one Purdue Agriculture student, biochemistry is a big part of what makes college fun. For Emily Sturm, a junior biochemistry major from Indianapolis, "cool" means being able to work in a research laboratory and conduct experiments some life sciences majors don't get to do until they've graduated.

Emily Sturm

Photo by Inez Ponce de Leon

Emily Sturm is part of a team researching microorganisms in the hopes of helping us better understand genetic diseases in humans. The junior biochemistry major from Indianapolis says that working in the lab has allowed her to step inside the scientific community.

"Working in a lab and conducting simple, but significant research has truly been a surprising and incredible experience," she said. But before she started her job, she didn't think she would be doing anything special. "I thought it might be kind of cool," she said. "Maybe I would wash the lab's dishes or pipette things, which still seemed a little tricky."

But instead of sink work, Sturm was assigned her own research project. She studies microorganisms called ciliates, which have unique properties. For example, Paramecium has special proteins to cut up its DNA. If scientists can decipher how this DNA-cutting process works in ciliates, they might better understand how genetic diseases work in humans.

"I look at the amino acid sequences of a protein found in various species of Paramecium in order to find functionally important regions of the protein," Sturm said. What does that mean? "Basically, how I describe it to my friends and family is, 'So, there's this really cool protein that the lab found and it's necessary for this really cool process, so we want to know what it does.'"

Sturm also said she was pleasantly surprised when she learned about the focus of her research project. After nearly a year in the lab, Sturm is comfortable growing the organisms, analyzing the DNA that makes the proteins and talking about her work.

James Forney, head of the biochemistry department and Sturm's advisor, voiced his admiration for her dedication. "I wish there were more students like Emily. She's very smart, and she's very hard-working," he said. "We're glad to have her in our department, and here in our lab."

Sturm said that working in the laboratory has been more than just a job. "I really enjoy learning many new things. I enjoy learning how to approach research, how an experiment is designed, what factors to consider, how to set up controls and, of course, how to troubleshoot."

Her laboratory work doesn't involve just test tubes and chemicals; she also attends meetings and gives presentations on how her research is going. "It has also been so helpful to just be able to step 'inside' the scientific community," she said. "I think the most exciting thing about scientific research is finding things that no one knows about. Even if no one's curing cancer, necessarily, so many other fundamental details are being discovered and pieced together. I enjoy knowing that I'm a part of finding things that haven't been found before."

The research is also helping her appreciate her classwork more. "You always hear about curing a disease, but you don't hear a lot about all the stuff you had to learn and go through before you got to that point," Sturm said. "[The lab] has given me such perspective in regards to my classwork. We students have the privilege of learning masses of information, but I think we often take for granted the years of work and research that was put into finding these fundamentals of science."