Professor Introduces Students to Research on Exotic Mediterranean Creatures

July 22, 2008
By: Worcester State University News

Jeffry Nichols (Chemistry) researches a protein from what might be considered an exotic creature from the Mediterranean.

To study hemoglobin molecules, which are the oxygen-carrying protein part of the blood, Nichols uses the appropriately named blood clam, which comes from the Mediterranean.

This research is fundamental rather than exotic. Nichols studies how these molecules bind and carry oxygen. He and his undergraduate student researchers manipulate parts of the protein to discover how the protein works.

Hemoglobin binds oxygen and takes it to tissues, he said. The question is: How quickly does it do this? And which part of the protein affects the speed and quality of this transmission?

Using his 2007-08 mini-grant, Hemoglobin Kinetics of Scapharca Mutants, Nichols and his students are changing the blood clams hemoglobin molecules to see what these changes do to the oxygen binding in the molecule.

One student worked with him during the spring 2008 semester to set up these experiments and relevant equipment. This gives students a better idea of how the parts work as a whole, he said. Students can get a better feel for the experiment by actually setting up the instruments.

Nichols says through this work he is teaching students to be scientists rather than technicians. They learn to think about what it is they’re trying to accomplish in the lab, and through this, they learn to troubleshoot and to analyze whether the data they’re getting is correct.

He himself has an arrangement with UMass-Worcester Medical School, where he works in the summer on his own research. I wanted to set up a subset of that work for students at Worcester State, he said.

Last summer, a WSC student worked with him at UMass. This summer, three WSC students have joined Nichols UMass research team as volunteers.

I’m able to introduce them to more research techniques there than I can here, he said.

Nichols just finished his second year on the WSC faculty. The mini-grant was a start to be able to do something here, he said. It gave me an opportunity to include undergraduates in research.

That said, he would love to do more. Equipment, space and time are obstacles that little by little, he is tackling.

We can do research with used equipment, he said. A colleague from Rice University, where he did his doctoral work in biochemistry, donated used lab equipment.

Worcester State isn’t set up to purchase used equipment, he added. If I had to purchase everything new, the mini-grant certainly would not be enough.

Nichols hope that the college might figure out a way to enable its scientists to purchase used equipment has its connections to the ideas of green chemistry. Why buy new when something used is serviceable and less expensive?

While he awaits that day, Nichols, like the hemoglobin molecules he studies, plans to have one undergraduate independent study research student each semester that he then transports to his UMass lab for summer work. For a WSC student, that is indeed an exotic venue.

Written by Barbara Zang, Ph.D.

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