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News & Stories: 2009-10

Calvin is McKnighted
November 17, 2009

Susanna Lynch, a 21-year-old senior biochemistry major, has won the top prize in the Biophysics and Quantitative biology category of the 2009 Frank and Sara McKnight Awards in Molecular Sciences. Lynch is the first Calvin student to win a McKnight award, which recognizes undergraduate students with a commitment to scientific research and a record of academic achievement. The award came with a $2,000 cash prize.

Susanna Lynch, Calvin's first McKnight Award winner
Susanna Lynch, senior biochemistry major.

"It is truly impressive that Susanna was the only finalist selected from a liberal arts college,” said Lynch’s research mentor, Calvin chemistry professor Kumar Sinniah. “Often these types of awards go to undergraduate students from large research universities and students working in well-known research labs.”

Two DNA projects

Lynch won the McKnight after presenting her research at a poster session—part of a scientific retreat for McKnight finalists held November 6-8, 2009, at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas. Her poster covered her two primary areas of research, one of which was single molecule force-pulling on guanine quadruplexes: Lynch explained that the end of a chromosome contains a DNA strand with a lot of guanine bases (one of the bases in DNA) and may fold back on itself to form a noncanonical DNA structure known as a quadruplex: "The number of quadruplexes affects how DNA is copied, which in turn has implications for cancer research,” she said. “If you have a lot of these quadruplexes, the enzyme telomerase can't make the DNA strand longer. So, more of these quadruplexes in the DNA may prevent the cell from continuing to copy itself."

Lynch also studies the unfolding of DNA. “We can calculate the force holding those two strands of DNA together and experimentally measure what it would take to pull them apart,” she said. 

Lynch participated in science summer research at Calvin.

The poster session required finalists to thoroughly explain their research: “The different professors came around, and we presented them our research, and they asked pretty targeted questions,” Lynch said. “They want interesting research, but they also want to know how much work you’ve put into the project.”

Lynch has already published her research in one European journal. “She has done excellent work this past summer, which will result in additional publications for her, a few of which she is already working on submitting,” Sinniah said. “This is a wonderful honor for Susanna, the college, the department, and for ISRI (the Integrated Science Research Institute), which supported her through a summer fellowship.”

Convert to science

Her successful career in biochemistry is something of a surprise to Lynch, who originally planned to study political science at Calvin. “I took chemistry my first semester with Professor (Ron) Blankespoor, and I really enjoyed the class,” she explained the switch. “I was kind of tired of dealing with humanities-type issues, and science was a perfect solution to that.” She feels at home in the lab: “It’s a great lab, and it’s a great department.  It’s a small enough department that you can get to know all of the professors.”

Lynch recently learned that she has won a travel award to attend the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting held February 2010 in San Francisco. She will be participating in Calvin's Semester in Washington D.C. program this spring, and she hopes to land an internship with a scientific organization in order to learn more about how science policy is developed and moved through government channels. After graduation in May, she plans to work for a year before making a decision about future graduate work. “It’s got to be science,” she said. “Whatever I’m going to do, it’s got to be tied to science.”

~by Myrna Anderson, communications and marketing

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