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Skidmore College

Biochemist Sheppard wins federal grant

May 8, 2013
Sheppard and students in lab
Professor Kelly Sheppard and recent
summer-research students in his RNA-
incubation lab. (Photo by Gary Gold)

Life needs water, but it also needs proteins. The most essential are those that enable genetic coding—they’re the proteins that guide the synthesis of other proteins. Skidmore biochemist Kelly Sheppard has won a major National Science Foundation grant for his research and teaching on the way bacteria use RNA to translate DNA’s instructions for synthesizing their cell proteins. Sheppard’s winning NSF proposal reflects his way of working: focusing on basic science but also on education and outreach.

The science involves the enzymes (proteins again) that help bind asparagine, an amino acid that’s a building block of many other proteins, to RNA molecules. From DNA segments of two bacteria, a Staphylococcus and a Bdellovibrio, Sheppard’s students perform a complex series of solution mixing, incubating, extracting, and purifying to form transfer-RNA for their experiments. They want to test what bioinformatic studies have predicted: that Staph and Bdellovibrio have two distinct means to attach asparagine to tRNA.

Larger organisms such as humans contain free asparagine that can be linked directly to its matching tRNA, but many bacteria are known to lack asparagine—unless they’re living in a host from whose body they can take it. These microbes seem to have evolved a nondiscriminating enzyme that can bind aspartate onto the usual asparagine-binding tRNA (and afterward another enzyme converts the aspartate to asparagine). By color-tagging the chemicals released when such reactions occur, the researchers can see which tRNAs are succesfully binding to which amino acids. Sheppard says the work “provides insights into the basic evolution of life and could help in developing new treatments for Staph infections.”

As for the outreach, the project involves both Skidmore undergrads and local middle-schoolers. Through his research, Sheppard has developed a new course, CH 343, in project-based independent lab work, which gets students engaged in every phase from predictions and hypotheses, to methodology planning and testing, to data gathering and analysis. Some of this spring’s enrollees are continuing their work in the College's summer collaborative-research program, “so the course is something of an incubator,” Sheppard says, “to interest and prepare students for pursuing in-depth research.”

And he’s reaching out farther, to a girls’ charter school in Albany, whose pupils are predominantly low-income and would be first-generation college students. Sheppard, whose wife works at the school, notes that middle school can be a time “when some girls start having confidence issues about math and science, so we want them to get a look at college life and lab work, and perhaps see the possibility of becoming college science students themselves. We hope to host a visit every year.”

The three-year, $300,000 NSF grant will pay for three students to stay on campus and conduct full-time research each summer, for Sheppard to take a full- instead of half-year sabbatical in 2013–14, and for some conference-going and other expenses. His sabbatical will put his classroom teaching on hiatus, but he’ll still be glued to his lab, supervising cadres of continuing and new research students as they delve deep into genetic engineering and analysis.

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