by Kristen Lansing
Christopher Roberts peers into the eyepieces of a microscope and rolls the knobs back and forth until the specimen on the slide becomes perfectly clear. He carefully examines the slide of cancerous cells, looking for any changes that could indicate a breakthrough.
“I see the cancerous cells in the zebrafish and plant cells and how they have changed since I last looked at them,” said Roberts, a junior biochemistry major from Sheridan, Indiana.
Roberts’ focus is pre-medicine. At the moment, he is absorbed in cancer research, and his hands-on work has reinforced what he learned in the classroom. He started his research as a freshman, when he jumped at the chance to study genes that suppress cancer cells.
He focuses on two genes: the PKL pathway gene and CHD5. He studies how these genes work in Arabidopsis (flowering plants) because they are similar to the human genome.
“It’s challenging because it’s not something that’s been done before,” Roberts said. “It’s uncharted territory, so knowing what the next step is can be difficult sometimes.”
The CHD5 gene can help suppress cancer cells. Roberts explained that humans can have a defective CHD5 gene or lack it altogether. These people, researchers have found, have a higher risk of getting cancer. By studying these genes, researchers (including Roberts) hope to understand why cancer happens.
Roberts’ interest in what causes cancer goes beyond the research lab. He is the head of Be the Match at Purdue, a philanthropic organization that connects volunteers with cancer patients who need life-saving bone marrow transplants.
This bone marrow registry allows participants to directly help patients with life-threatening cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. Roberts said he focuses on getting as many people as possible to register.
“You can save a life just by doing a five-minute registration,” Roberts said.
Matches are rare; however, in the two years Roberts has been involved with the group, he has known many people who have matched, including two of his Farmhouse Fraternity brothers. Matches are rare because the donor must be genetically similar to the patient in need.
“Finding out that they got matched, which probably saved the kid’s life, is pretty awesome,” Roberts said.
Many people develop cancer every day, and Roberts said the registry is an easy and effective way to help others.
Purdue may seem like an unusual choice to be a pre-med major because it doesn’t have a medical school. But Roberts said that coming to Purdue, being involved with Be the Match, and working in the research lab solidified his dream of being a doctor. He said Purdue’s emphasis on research is a terrific experience that students may not get in other programs.
“I’ve been a part of this research lab for three years, and I’ve gotten to the point where I could possibly be added to a scientific research paper,” he said.
Being added as a contributor to a research paper is a considerable accomplishment for an undergraduate.
Roberts credited his high school biology teacher and their friendship for encouraging him to pursue medicine. This obviously meant seeking a school with a top-tier science program. Roberts visited several other big universities including Notre Dame and Ohio State, but he found something special about Purdue.
“When I came to Purdue Biochem, it just felt like home to me,” he said.
Roberts said the department staff is what really sold him on Purdue. When he visited campus, Roberts said three people (including Joseph Ogas, associate head and professor of biochemistry), personally showed him around the labs and demonstrated what they do. Roberts was impressed that a research professor would take time out of his busy schedule for that.
It is a big part of why he works in Ogas’ lab today.
“He wants you to know and understand what it is you’re doing, as well as he does,” Roberts said. “His door is always open and he’s always willing to answer questions.”
Roberts said the research he is doing is valuable, but he doesn’t necessarily see himself in cancer research after graduation. Instead, he said he wants to focus on orthopedics or radiology.
“I think the technological aspects are what draws me to both fields,” Roberts said. “I’ve shadowed surgeons who don’t even have to physically see the patient to diagnose the problem.”
Luckily, he doesn’t have to choose right away! Medical schools allow students to learn about each specialty area and hone their skills. Most students match with a specialty toward the end of their junior year or half way through senior year of med-school.
“Oncology is a very competitive specialty to get into,” Roberts said. “I’m planning on moving away from it [oncology] for a little while, but I guess I’ll see when I’m there what strikes my interests.”
While Roberts has big aspirations for his future, for now you can find him in the lab peering into microscopes, looking for the answer to why cancer happens.