Copper in Our Bodies

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CATEGORY: Internships, Academics
TYPE: Articles
RELATED PROGRAMS: Biochemistry

Richard Liang ’13 (Nanjing, China) studied how copper is regulated in the body. It’s an important metal in humans, Liang says, but harmful if not regulated. Indeed, research has linked the malfunctioning of copper regulation to diseases such as Alzheimer’s. “Our body has a very delicate system for regulating copper levels,” he says. “If we understand it, it could have medical applications—but we have to understand it first.”

Liang began research in the spring semester in chemistry professor Kathryn Splan’s class Research in Biochemistry and continued throughout the summer in her Olin-Rice lab. Liang, a biology and chemistry double major, worked on the project for the rest of the academic year, and it provided the foundation for his honors project.

He focused on one type of protein that transports copper within cells: first cloning the gene into bacteria to produce the protein and then performing experiments to study how it might interact with copper and other proteins.

During the summer, he spent full days in the lab running DNA and protein gels—not an easy task—and each day’s highlight was when the bands showed up clearly on the gel, indicating a successful experiment. “I learned a lot through this project, both in lab techniques and in the important experience of using what I’ve learned from class,” Liang says. “It was a building block for me.”

The benefit of studying chemistry at a small liberal arts college, he says, is clear. “Here, instead of interacting with post-docs as you might at a large university, you’re interacting directly with a professor—someone who can help you with grad school, someone with more resources and connections,” he says. “Professor Splan trusted me a lot on experiments and let me do everything.”

PUBLISHED: 01/22/2014