Matthew Gage Trains Future Science Researchers

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Dr. Matthew Gage sits on the edge of the table, slouched back in a baseball shirt and jeans. He speaks to the researchers not as colleagues, but as friends just gathering for a leisurely chat. The students react the same way, as if they are simply gossiping about properties of proteins and cancer cures.

Gage, a Northern Arizona University (NAU) Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is the faculty mentor for a research lab he created (The Gage Research Lab) 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.

An interest in protein interactions

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.”

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NAU Associate Professor Matthew Gage

 “Sometimes you learn more from things that go wrong than from things that work.”

Gage explained that by inserting a gene from a normal system into a pool of bacteria, researchers can grow a large amount of proteins quickly and are then able to specify which region they want to study. They can then tag the genes and watch how the proteins interact. Because proteins are undetectable to the naked eye, they use light signals to understand what is happening.

Hands-on learning for students 

Gage and his 14 student researchers—only four of them graduate students—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 doing actual research. The learning becomes more specific and detailed. “They are learning how to use techniques that they will use the rest of their careers,” said Gage.

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. 

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Positions in Dr. Gage's lab are competitive.

Once trained, they can work on experiments. Often, there is a lot of trial and error. “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.”

Long-term relationships 

Some of Gage’s student researchers have worked with him their entire undergraduate career, while others have come and gone. “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 said. “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.”

Positions in Gage’s lab are competitive. Gage chooses his undergraduate researchers based upon initiative, their reasons for wanting to work in a lab, and their chemistry with the existing group. “Certainly good grades are an indicator of someone who is a good student, but I have seen some really brilliant students in the classroom who are the clumsiest people in the lab,” Gage said.

Hard work pays off 

Gage believes undergraduate research experience is of great value to students 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 explained.

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. 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,” noted Gage. 

--Maria DiCosola