The Future is Now
Associate Professor Matthew Gage sits on the
edge of the table, slouched back in a baseball shirt and jeans. He speaks to
the assembled researchers—his students—as if they were friends just
gathering for a leisurely chat. The students react the same way, as if
gossiping about protein properties and cancer cures were the most normal thing
in the world.
Gage, an Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is the faculty
mentor for a research lab he created that focuses on
the interaction between three specific proteins and how they control the growth
of blood vessels. He and the students in his lab are studying the proteins’ functions
in hopes of creating new cancer and cardiovascular medicines.
Since attending graduate
school in the mid-1990s, Gage has spent most of his academic and professional
career as a structural biologist. “My interest is in protein studies and
how they work,” Gage said. “In my training, I have learned how to develop the
three-dimensional models of proteins that other people will use for developing
experiments. Most of the work I do now is related to using that information to
figure out how a protein works, what it interacts with, and how we may be able
to change that function in some way if ... a disease, for example, takes over.”
Gage and his 14 student researchers work together closely. They are currently researching a group
of functional proteins that don’t have an organized structure to discover how
those proteins recognize what they’re supposed to bind to and how promiscuous
their interactions are.
Although some of the basic biochemical techniques they
use in the lab are explained in classes, it’s not the same as performing actual
research. When his students engage in hands-on research, Gage says, the
learning becomes more specific and detailed. “Students are learning how to use
techniques that they will use the rest of their careers,” he says.
Gage puts his student researchers through a training
program before they begin working in his lab. The program includes completing
experiments with known outcomes so the students will develop the correct
techniques they will need to use in the lab.
Once trained, students begin working actively on
experiments related to Gage’s research. When that happens, Gage says, trial and
error becomes an important instructor, too.
“Nine times out of 10 that’s where you gain a lot of
understanding of what’s going on,” Gage said. “Sometimes you learn more from
things that go wrong than from things that work.”
Positions in Gage’s lab are competitive, and many of Gage’s
student researchers have worked with him their entire undergraduate careers. He
chooses his undergraduate researchers based upon initiative, their reasons for
wanting to work in a lab, and their chemistry with the existing group.
“I don’t ever want a student who stays and works in my
lab who doesn’t want to be there, and I want to make sure that they’re
interested in what they’re doing,” Gage says. “It takes time to successfully
complete a project—it usually takes at least a year for someone to be able to
understand what they’re doing and really complete something.”
Hard work pays off
Gage believes undergraduate research experience is of
great value to students who are interested in becoming professional
researchers. “The experience of getting to actually figure something out and
understanding the difficulty of trying to set up an experiment properly [and] …
the data that you gather are all valuable skills,” Gage explains.
Moreover, the outcomes of the research are published in
peer-reviewed journals such as Protein
Science and Biophysical Journal. Gage
and his students also present their work at national meetings, such as those
held by the Annual Protein Society and Annual Biophysical Society.
Over the past two years, seven undergraduates and four
graduate students presented posters at different meetings. Three undergraduates
were chosen to present their work at the Protein Society meeting. “This is a
great honor since there is only one session for undergraduates and only four to
six students are invited to speak,” Gage says. “The work that my undergraduate
students present is on par with the work of many graduate students, and they
are often asked what year they are in graduate school.”