The Future is Now

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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.”

Hands-on learning for students

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.

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Matthew Gage helps undergraduate researchers tackle complex subjects.

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.”

Long-term relationships

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.”