February 13, 2009

Sarah Sykes ’09 Explores Protein’s Role in Neurodegenerative Diseases

Biochemistry major and varsity tennis player writes about her honors thesis under the guidance of Yvonne Gindt, associate professor of chemistry

Sarah Sykes ’09 (West Grove, Pa.) is working on an honors thesis examining a protein’s role in the possible causes and treatments for neurodegenerative diseases. Her adviser is Yvonne Gindt, associate professor of chemistry. A biochemistry major, Sykes is also a member of the College’s women’s tennis team.

    My thesis work has strong ties to medicine. I am studying the protein phycocyanin, which is isolated from blue-green algae. Phycocyanin is structurally similar to the proteins that form toxic intermediates in the brains of animals suffering from neurodegenerative disease.

    Understanding the mechanisms by which phycocyanin dissociates (breaks down) and associates into different forms could provide further insight into the causes of, and possible treatments for, some neurodegenerative diseases. Using fluorescence spectroscopy, I am conducting kinetic studies to determine the mechanisms by which phycocyanin dissociates and associates into different forms.

    The papers I have read, and my own work on protein reactions, have given me a better understanding of the complexity of protein reactions and the mechanisms of human and animal disease. My thesis work has also better prepared me for research in the future by improving my laboratory skills, making me more independent in the lab, and by giving me experience in proposing explanations for results from experiments about which little has been previously studied.

    One of the greatest benefits of pursuing an honors thesis is being able to work one-on-one with a professor. Dr. Gindt has improved my lab skills, challenged me as a student, and her expertise in the area has guided my research.

    I will be attending the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine next fall, from which I received an academic (merit-based) scholarship. After veterinary school, I plan to pursue a residency in veterinary pathology or opthalmology. Once I become board certified, I hope to work in academia or in the pharmaceutical industry, perhaps working in drug development or safety testing.

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