Hobart and William Smith Colleges - Biochem Cancer Research Offers Unique Scientific Education
The HWS Update
Seffi Cramer and Patricia Mowery working in lab Eaton 202

Biochem Cancer Research Offers Unique Scientific Education

In courses like cell biology, organic chemistry and immunology, you won’t find any “canned” labs with predetermined outcomes. Instead, HWS faculty researchers engage students in the scientific process through ongoing cancer-related projects funded through the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and other prestigious organizations.

Professor Justin Miller

Professor of Chemistry Justin Miller

“Is what we’re doing scholarship? Is it teaching? Yes, it’s both,” says Professor of Chemistry Justin Miller, an expert in bioorganic and synthetic organic chemistry. “Our teaching is our scholarship and our scholarship is our teaching: there’s no way to disentangle them and we wouldn’t want to. That’s the whole point — students are learning by practicing. I think that’s the best way to teach.”

The anti-cancer research collaborations among faculty that began more than a decade ago have since become integrated — and integral — to the HWS biology and chemistry curricula, yielding important results both for the field and for student researchers.

Professor of Biology Sigrid Carle ’84, whose classes and independent studies regularly collaborate with Miller’s, says, “I’ve never really liked the kind of ‘canned labs’ where students do a project and everybody already knows what’s going to happen. That’s not really an experiment — that’s not science. With all the unknowns, students at Hobart and William Smith get the real experience of being a scientist, the real process.”

Professor of Biology Sigrid Carle

Professor of Biology Sigrid Carle

Miller’s lab synthesizes anti-cancer compounds similar to those approved for FDA use, tweaking molecules to reveal potential therapeutic uses, which students test in the cell biology courses taught by Carle. Similarly, Professor of Chemistry Erin Pelkey’s synthetic organic chemistry group develops bond-forming strategies that help identify potential new anticancer agents, which Professor of Biology Patricia Mowery and her students test for cytotoxicity (i.e. cell killing ability).

“Research is an incredibly valuable experience, whatever the institution, but at a small liberal arts college we’re able to have a much larger fraction of the student body do research,” says Mowery. “A small school setting allows for a much deeper mentorship…At larger universities, undergraduates often work with a grad student, not with the head of the lab, and often won’t have a project on their own.”

At HWS, “students here control everything,” Pelkey says. “They initiate the independent studies, they work together in groups of two and three all year round, and they learn about the importance of team work and group unity…[They] carry out the reactions [and] do all the analyses [and] train and mentor the next generation,” which he explains is “an excellent model for education and training as the students learn by doing real organic chemistry research.”

Professor of Chemistry Erin Pelkey

Professor of Chemistry Erin Pelkey

This independence, Miller says, enables “students to learn a lot and contribute substantially more to the project. If they have their goal and have the latitude, they’ll make mistakes but learn from them and come out better trained, better scientists, who know how to think scientifically and problem-solve.”

And through the research groups at HWS, recent graduates like Matthew Burnett ’20, Brianna Hurysz ’20 and Kaitlynn Sockett ’20 – all headed to graduate school this fall – have helped advance and in some cases reorient interdisciplinary faculty research projects.

In their research, Burnett and Hurysz each independently noticed something unusual in an experiment that rejiggered the initial hypotheses, a level of “insight that’s incredibly important,” Carle says.

“To develop a protocol for an experiment often involves a lot of trial and error but this trial and error should not be random. We learn from our previous trial what should be changed for our next experiment,” says Hurysz, a biochemistry major and public policy minor who will pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences at the University of California San Diego beginning this fall.

Sockett, a biochemistry major and writing colleagues minor who will enter the chemistry Ph.D. program at Boston University this fall, worked in Pelkey’s group over the course of several semesters, completing an Honors project focused on finding a new route to make anti-cancer molecules. And while her direction ultimately was unsuccessful, Sockett says the work was nevertheless vital toward the overall project of finding pathways that are effective.  It also instilled “a better understanding of the chemistry” and the importance of communication in scientific research.

“Having to write a thesis that’s accessible and clear not just to a science audience was good professional development experience,” she says of her Honors project, which challenged her to think about future goals, “work independently, defend and explain the work [and] solve problems in real time. It was intimidating but valuable preparation for grad school.”

Prior to her research project with Mowery, Hurysz planned to pursue a career in the medical field. “However, I quickly realized how much I enjoyed research and solving problems that nobody else has solved yet,” she says. “Not only did this research experience help me realize I wanted to go to graduate school, but it also gave me the skills necessary to be competitive among a pool of candidates who have years working full time in research labs under their belts.”

In the photo on top, Professor of Biology Patricia Mowery works with a student in an Eaton lab.