Undergraduates Talk About the Research Process
The Helpful Chaperones
Quenton Bubb ’16 is used to people asking just what his field of biophysics is all about. He even has a pat reply: “I ask them if they know who Watson and Crick are, because what they did was biophysics,” he says.
James Watson and Francis Crick, of course, are the scientists who famously received a Nobel Prize for their work in discovering the double-helix structure of DNA. Bubb also has a more complete definition of biophysics at the ready: applying mathematics, chemistry, biology, physics, and computation to solve biological problems.
And Bubb has won a number of awards himself, including most recently a Marshall Scholarship that will have him leaving in September for a year of biophysics research at England’s University of Cambridge (Crick’s alma mater). Across the pond, he will be engaged in a variation of the work he’s been doing here as a research fellow in the laboratory of the Krieger School’s Professor Karen Fleming, where his focus is outer membrane proteins, a special class of proteins that exist on the outer membranes of cells. These OMPs help cells communicate, take up nutrients, and perform other essential “gatekeeper” tasks, but to reach their posts they must make a rather arduous journey from the center of the cell where they are created.
In the E. coli cells Bubb studies, these would-be gatekeepers must first pass through an inner membrane and then traverse an area called the periplasm. What’s worse, they do this while in what’s called an “unfolded state.” “They are like a ball of spaghetti and very sticky,” is how Bubb describes the proteins that have yet to achieve the ordered “folded” form they will assume once they complete their journey. Fortunately for them, the pasta-like OMPs have helper proteins—called “chaperones”—while on the move.
“The chaperones bind to the OMPs and protect them from aggregating, where they stick to each other and don’t end up in the outer membrane, which can be a huge problem for the cell,” Bubb says.
He is specifically looking at one type of chaperone called FkpA that performs best at higher temperatures. “I probe the structural and thermodynamics characteristics of FkpA to figure out how it is doing its job,” he says. What’s the end game for such research? A better understanding of cellular workings is a boon to basic science, of course. But there could be more at stake. Protein aggregation is a common feature of many neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“As our understanding of these systems becomes more advanced, we start asking better questions,” Bubb says. “I intend to get a medical degree and a PhD and I’m particularly interested in applying these methodologies and techniques to disease. There is a lot of potential for innovation in the translational application of biophysics.”
Making a Life Connection
Many residents of impoverished Baltimore neighborhoods have unmet health care and social service needs. That’s the bad news. And the good? Resources are often readily available to help those in need; it’s largely a matter of increasing community awareness of the organizations and institutions offering assistance.
Public health major Connor Steele-McCutchen ’18 knows this well. Since fall 2014, he’s been a community liaison and research assistant for Baltimore CONNECT, a research partnership between the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and nearly a dozen different community organizations, including soup kitchens and homeless shelters. The ongoing goal is to create a health care access toolkit these groups can use to better connect needy citizens with care.
“I guess you could call it activism research in that it’s very much hands-on and interventionist, and at the same time we are still collecting large amounts of data,” Steele-McCutchen says. He works primarily with the Berea-Eastside Community Association in the East Baltimore Midway neighborhood, about a mile southeast of the Homewood campus. There, he helped survey the association’s clients about their health care and social service needs. Along with other volunteers, he also took to the neighborhood’s streets, knocking on doors and asking residents about their care challenges.
“I ended up sitting down for several hours at homeless shelters interviewing homeless people about their experiences,” he says, adding that the generosity and resilience he often encountered were “humbling and remarkable.” In addition to providing insights for the emerging toolkit, the data are also being used to create marketing campaigns to better promote the availability of services.
“The experience has helped my ability to empathize with a broad spectrum of people and work collaboratively against odds that can seem insurmountable,” says Steele-McCutchen. “It’s given me a lot of hope and excitement for what is possible with public health and community outreach and expanded my own personal toolkit in terms of working with people. This will be really valuable for my future career in disaster relief emergency medicine.”
Divided by the Divide
Nicosia on the island of Cyprus has the dubious distinction of being the only divided capital city in the world. It is severed by a demilitarized zone known as the Green Line that separates the Republic of Cyprus (largely Greek-speaking and populated by people of Greek descent, who are Greek Orthodox) from the self-declared state, the Turkish Republic of Cyprus, where Turkish language, culture, and Islam dominate. It’s a vestige of the 1974 Turkish invasion of the island that also left behind considerable ill will between many Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
But that was more than 40 years ago. How do young people on both sides of the line react to the division now? Elisabeth Fassas ’17 spent a month on the island, gathering data and interviewing more than two dozen people on both sides of the zone to find out, as part of a Dean’s Undergraduate Research Award.
“On both sides there is a hope that something good will eventually happen,” Fassas says. “But there’s a greater sense of urgency among the Turkish youth and among the older people than there is among the Greek youth.”
Younger folks on the Greek side, she discovered, are more concerned with their personal futures and are less bothered by living in a divided land. The Greek side is wealthier, for one thing, and its residents can travel into the Turkish side with a passport while their Turkish counterparts cannot enter the Greek side.
“Among the older people who were there during the invasion, the animosity is very much alive on both sides,” she says. Turkish youths, meanwhile, also feel embittered and stymied by the division.
“But for Greek young people, the division just doesn’t play as much of a role in their daily lives,” Fassas concludes.
In 1801, Charles Carroll, Jr., and his new bride Harriet Chew embarked on construction of an elegant mansion. Homewood—the handsome, federal-style brick edifice that emerged, surrounded by sprawling acreage—was a wedding gift from his father. The young couple soon started a family. A bright future beckoned.
But barely 15 years later, Charles was a despondent alcoholic, his marriage was in shambles, and Harriet and the children had left for her father’s home in Philadelphia, never to return.
This tragic tale—at the heart of what’s now the Homewood Museum on Johns Hopkins’ namesake campus—is what Helena Arose ’17 and Sarah Braver ’17 set out to examine in their living history presentation, “Conversations with the Carrolls: The Story of Charles Carroll of Homewood and His Turbulent Marriage to Harriet Chew.” Also explored was a tragic aspect of American history: slavery. Where students now walk with backpacks and books between classes, enslaved men and women owned by the Carrolls once labored in the fields.
The presentation, performed multiple times at the museum in April, grew out of a research assignment that Arose and Braver received in their Introduction to the Museum class. “We had to come up with ideas for ways the Homewood museum could better engage students,” says Braver, a history of art major. “We decided to present the story of the Carrolls that hadn’t really been told in the campus tours.”
Neither had visited the museum prior to the class and their general feeling was that not many students avail themselves of the National Historic Landmark in their midst, with its fine collection of period pieces.
“We felt a living history production put on by students with a student-penned script telling the story of the people of Homewood was a better way to engage students in the house than maybe a story about architecture or furniture would be,” says Arose, an archaeology major. “It’s a different angle. We also wanted to include the slave story in the project.”
Fueled by an Arts Innovation Grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the pair developed a production team including Writing Seminars major and scriptwriter Julia Phoon ’17 and director Saraniya Tharmarajah ’17, a public health studies major. Students were cast to play Charles, Harriet, and three slaves (William Ross, Izadod, and Cecelia). The principal source of information about life at Homewood was archived letters between Charles and his father, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and between Harriet and her family. Some of the dialogue in the script is taken directly from these letters.
Much less is known about the lives of the slaves at Homewood, though their names and duties do appear in some of the letters. “We had to think about a broader representation of slaves from this period,” Braver says. “We had a historian [Philip Morgan, the Harry C. Black Professor in the Department of History] who focused on slavery at this time review the dialogue and descriptions to make sure we weren’t completely off base.”
While Charles’ drinking clearly led to the dissipation of the marriage, the production’s creators are not above coming away with some sympathy for him—he is all of 26 years old when the story opens. The melancholia that spurred his alcoholism might have been due to having two sons die in infancy as well as the daunting prospect of living in the shadow of his famous and powerful father.
“So much was expected of him,” Tharmarajah says of Charles Jr. “His father signed the Declaration of Independence—that’s a lot to live up to.”