14th Annual Chinook Symposium

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This article was written by Edward Hsiang

The Chinook Symposium has been a long-standing tradition for the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department here at the University of Lethbridge. Every year, poster and oral presentations are held from the high school to Ph.D. levels, with prizes given out at the end of the event. It’s also a perfect opportunity for science majors to get a glimpse of on-campus research and scope out prospective independent study positions. Although this year’s event has been delayed to November 19th, we’ve taken the opportunity to interview the students giving oral presentations to provide you with a sneak peek at what to look forward to!

Catrione Lee, M.Sc. Candidate in Biochemistry

I am a 1st-year master’s student co-supervised by Dr. Athan Zovoilis (UofL) and Dr. Tim McAllister at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. I work in bioinformatics but am really a microbiologist at heart (I even have an E. coli tattoo). 

Describe your project for the general public, or as if you’re explaining it to your parents.

My project involves using supercomputers to look for drug resistance in environmental and agricultural bacteria.

Now describe your project in the most niche, hyperspecific way possible.

I use high-throughput cluster computing to undertake metagenomics to detect antimicrobial resistance genes and associate them to mobile genetic elements in genomic proximity. This will allow us to determine these genes’ transmissibility across the One Health continuum with a particular interest in beef feedlot cattle intersections’ role on overall antimicrobial resistance.

What is the major takeaway you hope people will understand after listening to your presentation?

A major takeaway from my presentation I hope people get is that antimicrobial resistance is a threat that needs to be monitored carefully to track across different environments.

What makes you passionate about your research?

I love my research because I get to survey all different kinds of bacteria that may never be cultured in the lab. Also, bioinformatics is a learning curve with a constantly changing slope. I like to think of it as a cycle. By the time I learn something new and get comfortable with it, I need to change my perspective and apply myself in another way. This helps me fulfil my love of puzzles, and I get that high of solving a complex problem constantly.

Favourite piece of Chemistry/Biochemistry trivia?

Current sequencing technology can sequence a human genome in just 12 minutes (the first human genome took 13 years!).

Nolan Hahn, M.Sc. Candidate in Chemistry 

My name is Nolan Hahn, I received an undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Lethbridge and now belong to the Boere research group. I study electrochemistry, in particular the main group inorganic heterocycles containing sulfur and nitrogen. Philosophy is a second passion of mine, which any desk-holder in distraction range of mine would likely attest.

Describe your project for the general public, or as if you’re explaining it to your parents.

The redox chemistry of elemental sulfur is very well understood in water; however, electrochemistry is often used to study analytes in non-aqueous solvents. Attempts to study sulfur in these common non-aqueous solvents have not been particularly successful at describing what occurs chemically, so we have devised a method of using a more exotic solvent which is a gas at room temperature and pressure to try and attempt to uncover a more complete understanding.

Now describe your project in the most niche, hyperspecific way possible.

Previous attempts to characterize octatomic sulfur electrochemically were undertaken in acetonitrile – a common non-aqueous electrochemistry solvent. There is synthetic evidence from experiments utilizing liquid SO2 as a solvent that sulfur may undergo two consecutive one-electron oxidations in aprotic solvents and remain an octatomic ring, but coulometric evidence from acetonitrile indicates a 16-electron process suggesting a formal oxidation state of S2+. Computational evidence puts any sized homopolyatomic sulfur cluster of that charge density well outside the range of voltages accessible in any solvent, which is strong evidence that other chemical changes are occurring that account for the moles of electrons transferred in a facile ECE process, perhaps due to the proximity of the sulfur redox couple potential to the edge of the accessible solvent window in acetonitrile.

My project has been to undertake the electrochemistry in liquid sulfur dioxide due to its extremely large positive solvent window and eliminate other variables between the electrochemical and synthetic works.

What is the major takeaway you hope people will understand after listening to your presentation?

Sulfur is incredibly common, and the redox chemistry of its anions is well discussed in the context of batteries, but the oxidation of sulfur in non-aqueous solvents is incredibly poorly understood by comparison. This presentation should elucidate many of the challenges that are responsible for the lack of a convincing narrative and hopefully provide a more convincing picture of the anodic redox chemistry.

What makes you passionate about your research?

The idea of contributing to the body of human knowledge is novel enough for anyone to be interested in research, I think, and for most people, I think the novelty seems really out of reach, as the devices we interact within our day-to-day life are so complex they seem beyond explanation. What is really staggering, and what only recently has dawned on me after having started doing research myself, is how much is still not known. Sometimes it can be really overwhelming how quickly new questions arise when you try to answer old ones, but fundamentally, I think that what makes research interesting is that it feels like you are yanked along by the narrative that you help to create.

Favourite piece of Chemistry/Biochemistry trivia?

The letter “J” does not appear as a part of a chemical symbol on the periodic table, nor does the letter “Q,” although the letter “Q” has previously occupied the periodic table as part of the IUPAC’s temporary naming rules for undiscovered elements.

Dylan Webb, Ph.D. Candidate in Chemistry

My name is Dylan Webb, and I work with Prof. Paul Hayes in the Chemistry Department. I got my B.Sc. and M.Sc. at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand (I’m not a hobbit) before wanting to obtain a Ph.D. outside of the country. I enjoy any research that I believe to have a positive impact on society and the environment. At the moment, this involves either catalyst design for biodegradable polymers or the study of medicinally relevant chemicals produced by nature.

Describe your project for the general public, or as if you’re explaining it to your parents.

I do chemistry. Use weed make cancer go away.

(The serious answer) Nature produces wonderfully complex compounds that have beneficial properties to medicine. Cannabis is no exception, and I’m using the active compounds that cannabis produces to generate various compounds designed to restrict cancer growth. Determining what specific compound or features of a compound give the best anti-cancer properties is one challenge, the other being the more defined isolation and generation of these unique compounds.  

Now describe your project in the most niche, hyperspecific way possible.

A thorough investigation into the semisynthetic strategies of major cannabinoids, 9THC and CBD, along with minor cannabinoids, 8THC and CBN, has been undertaken with the goal for use at an industrial scale. Several lesser-known cannabinoids, including 10THC, 10aTHC, and CBND, were explored along with relevant derivatives aimed at deciphering a structural relationship of cannabinoids as chemotherapeutic agents, including quinones, silyl ethers, and a fluorinated derivative. Other investigations include the thermodynamic stability of 8THC over 9THC, the electrochemical nature of ortho-quinones and how that relates to their bioactivity, and a quantitative NMR procedure to determine purity. 

What is the major takeaway you hope people will understand after listening to your presentation?

Nature has provided us with extraordinary compounds, with minor changes they can be directed towards particular medicinal targets, in this case the use of cannabinoids as anti-cancer agents. Despite the novelty of cannabinoids, many organisms produce equally rare chemical compounds which hold unprecedented reactivity that is worth exploring due to their profound impact as medicinal agents.

What makes you passionate about your research?

Cannabis is illegal in most countries. The fact that I not only work with it but also use it to be involved in cutting-edge research to tackle some of science’s most difficult challenges is truly amazing. Cannabis has its novelty, but what I enjoy more is taking something that many people take for granted and turn it into something that can benefit everyone. People are interested in my research and I can talk to anyone and they understand my research. Nothing makes science more gratifying than the average person being excited about what you can accomplish. 

Favourite piece of Chemistry/Biochemistry trivia?

The protein botulinum toxin, known as Botox, is one of the deadliest chemicals, where 1.5 ng/kg is enough to kill someone. All it takes is an understanding of a chemical for science to utilize it in beneficial ways. 

Tyler Mrozowich, Ph.D. Candidate in Biochemistry

My name is Tyler Mrozowich, and I am a Ph.D. student in Dr. Trushar Patel’s Laboratory of Medicinal Biophysics. I earned my undergraduate degree from the U of L, where I started my MSc and transitioned to my Ph.D. My general field of research is in biochemistry and biophysics.

Describe your project for the general public, or as if you’re explaining it to your parents.

My project investigates the structures and interactions of Flaviviral RNAs, with a primary focus on Japanese encephalitis virus (JEV). In the future, this work could help develop therapeutics to treat viral infection in both JEV and other flaviviruses (West Nile, Zika etc.).

Now describe your project in the most niche, hyperspecific way possible.

My work is currently aimed at investigating the genomic cyclization process for Japanese encephalitis virus (JEV). The genome cyclization process involving the 5’ and 3’ ends of JEV allows the binding of viral NS5 RNA- dependent RNA polymerase, which results in making more copies of viral genomic RNA. We are employing a multi-technique complementary approach to gain structural insights into this conserved interaction. Genome cyclization is an essential step for flaviviral replication, and therefore a better understanding of this process may translate to the development of therapeutic inhibitors which could help treat infection.

What is the major takeaway you hope people will understand after listening to your presentation?

The major takeaway that I hope the audience brings home is that we seek to understand a necessary function of JEV and transition this approach to the entire family of viruses. This research is necessary because the World Health Organization considers flaviviruses a global health risk, and almost no effective therapeutics exist for infected individuals.

What makes you passionate about your research?

I think the most significant part of what drives my passion for research is the collaborative aspect. Science is not performed in a vacuum, and frequently, tough research questions require a multi-disciplinary approach that a single research group cannot achieve. This means that you often get the chance for international collaborations, opening the door for travel, experiencing other cultures, and learning techniques unavailable to your home research lab. Furthermore, the open-ended, problem-solving aspect of science also greatly intrigues me; there is no single correct way to answer a problem, rather a collection of ideas and experiments which directs you closer and closer to your goal.

Favourite piece of Chemistry/Biochemistry trivia?

James Watson and Francis Crick are credited with the discovery of the helix structure of DNA. However, Rosalind Franklin deserves the lion’s share of the discovery because her work was shown to Watson and Crick without her consent. Watson and Crick’s model of the helical structure of DNA did not cite any experimental data at all, even though it was almost entirely based on Franklin’s X-ray diffraction work on DNA. The Nobel Prize was awarded to Watson and Crick in 1963, five years after Franklin’s death, and at the time, the Nobel Prize was not awarded posthumously. Therefore, history often overlooks Rosalind Franklin’s necessary contributions to the double helix structure of DNA, which it should not.

Oral presentations will be held from 2:30 to 3:45 on November 19th in SAB002, while a plethora of poster presentations will be held from 12:45-5:30 pm in the SAB 7th floor atrium. Please come check out the science and support any of your friends and colleagues presenting. Who knows, you might just learn a thing or two!

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