Calvin student presents research at prestigious science conference
Study focuses on pulling forces in DNA molecules

Attending the 2006 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in St. Louis, Mo., was quite an experience for Calvin junior Mark Vander Wal.

At the February conference’s student poster session, the Grand Rapids, Mich., native presented a poster demonstrating his work on pulling forces in DNA molecules; to be asked to present is a significant honor.

“At the conference I was able to meet with many renowned scientists from around the country, especially those involved with scientific policy,” said Vander Wal, a Grand Rapids Christian High School graduate. “I heard several presentations on the direction that scientific research is taking throughout the U.S.”

Mark Vander Wal and Calvin chemistry professor Kumar SinniahVander Wal’s research involves hybridizing separate strands of DNA (combining two strands to create the helix) and then pulling the strands apart and measuring the forces involved.

“What is remarkable is that he was able to show that the pulling force will vary based on how hard you originally pushed the two strands together,” Calvin chemistry professor Kumar Sinniah said.

Vander Wal is hopeful his research can contribute to the larger conversations occurring in the scientific community.

“There are a lot of people out there who do these measurements with the same type of instrument,” Vander Wal said. “But different groups have been doing different projects and getting different results. So ‘Group A’ in California and ‘Group B’ in Florida are doing the same experiment but getting different values. And we think part of the reason, at least, is that people haven’t been controlling for the force of bringing things together.”

Sinniah said Vander Wal’s work could make an important contribution to DNA research. “Science is like that,” he said. “Each small advance builds on the next one and pushes the whole field forward.”

Vander Wal performed his research as one of eight students working with four professors in the summer 2005 edition of Calvin’s Merck/AAAS Undergraduate Science Research Program.

The program, funded by a three-year, $60,000 grant from the Merck Company Foundation, was created to generate collaborative research between the disciplines of chemistry and biology. Each year, one of Calvin’s student researchers was chosen as a Merck scholar.

Sinniah says the Merck program, which ended in August when the grant expired, was invaluable for supplying extra research opportunities for students.

“Every summer, we have 90 students applying for 45 positions in the science division,” he said. “This gave us more. It also brought two scientific disciplines together. And it helps us to identify the really outstanding students.”

Vander Wal is one such individual.

“Mark is an asset to us at Calvin,” Sinniah said. “This summer, he was not only helping me, but training the other students. He’s a very focused individual.”

That focus enabled Vander Wal to complete most of the requirements for both a biochemistry and chemistry major. He is leaning toward chemistry and remains grateful for the nonstop research opportunities Calvin has given him.

“I am very thankful to professor Sinniah for the opportunity that he has afforded me over the past two years,” Vander Wal said. “I am also very thankful to Calvin College for providing such a truly advanced and nurturing research environment for undergraduate students like me.”