4/11/2019 Staff Writer

2019 Spring Research Fair: A Measure of Distance and a Measure of Learning

(A featured story from the April 12 Spring Research Fair)

When Brianna Papoutsis first stepped onto Franklin & Marshall’s campus, she was a bit intimidated. After all, she hadn’t started her classes—yet. 

Instead, the Hackman Scholar arrived that summer in 2017 to spend several weeks before the academic year began working in Assistant Professor of Chemistry Christine Phillips-Piro’s laboratory. Under the direction of patient upperclassmen, Papoutsis participated in F&M’s Moore-Schaefer Mentorship program for gifted chemistry students. She learned firsthand how professor-assisted research progresses, and how to use equipment in Phillips-Piro’s research on protein structure and function. 

“Oh, my gosh!” she remembered thinking at the time. “This is so complicated!”

  • A Hackman Scholar, Papoutsis works Assistant Professor of Chemistry Christine Phillips-Piro’s laboratory, where she participated in F&M’s Moore-Schaefer Mentorship program for gifted chemistry students. She learned firsthand how professor-assisted research progresses. A Hackman Scholar, Papoutsis works Assistant Professor of Chemistry Christine Phillips-Piro’s laboratory, where she participated in F&M’s Moore-Schaefer Mentorship program for gifted chemistry students. She learned firsthand how professor-assisted research progresses. Image Credit: Deb Grove

It was the first of several campus research experiences for Papoutsis, a native of Reading, Pa. “Developing the use of doubly-incorporated unnatural amino acids to measure distances in proteins” is the junior chemistry major’s most recent project. 

“The protein I’m working with is GFP,” Papoutsis explains. “It’s a good starter system because it has a very strong structure, so you can mutate it and it won’t denature the entire protein.”

Papoutsis measured distances between sites on a particular protein so that their placement on the infrared spectrum could be mapped and used as a shortcut when crystallized proteins are needed.

Doing that successfully, she said, could save other researchers considerable time and effort. 

Papoutsis said she enjoys the sciences, and is focused on a biochemistry track: biology, because that’s a longtime passion, and chemistry because the logical, mathematical nature of the science appeals to her. 

She opted for a liberal arts college for a purpose. 

“I think that being highly specified in one area [gives] you a lot of room for growth in other subjects,” Papoutsis said. “I really enjoy – on top of taking a science class – taking a sociology class, a philosophy class. It broadens my perspective on what I’m learning.”

She explained, “My sociology class, for example, has inspired me to want to work in certain areas because of the inequality of health care.”

Her range of study, she said, helped her recognize how “all the sciences are really interconnected, from organic chemistry to biology to chemistry.”

Papoutsis heads back to Phillips-Piro’s lab this summer to conduct more research – and this time, she will be an experienced researcher who ushers in a new cohort of wide-eyed first-year students. 

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