Ryan Stafford

1. What is your specific area of research (include the name of your faculty and/or laboratory)?
I work under Dr. Gregory A. Weiss, one of the new chemistry professors just hired by UCI. In his lab, we research methods and applications of a technique called phage-display to areas of biological and chemical interest. Phage-display enables large libraries of peptides to be genetically engineered to the coat of filamentous bacteriophage M13. The phage library can subsequently be used to isolate individual phage that bind to a chosen target substance, similar to the way the human body generates antibodies to various antigens. A larger library increases the probability that a specific binder can be found. With this in mind, a fellow undergraduate researcher and I worked together to create a phage library with an approximate diversity of 1012 unique phage-displayed peptides. I used this library to successfully isolate a phage displaying a peptide that binds strongly to Lethal Factor (LF), a protein that plays a crucial role in the pathogenicity of the disease Anthrax. The apparent EC50 for the phage with the LF-binding peptide is sub-nanomolar. Further studies seek to show that the peptide will inhibit LF when it is not attached to the phage. These studies offer paradigms for both inhibitor discovery and biosensor development by first using a target of clear importance.
2. When and how did you first get involved in research?

Before working for Dr. Weiss, I worked with Dr. Douglas Tobias for two quarters during my sophmore year. Dr. Tobias uses molecular dynamics computer simulations to study complex systems of molecules. I learned about Dr. Tobias’s research by simply perusing the faculty research web sites. I e-mailed him, along with a couple of other researchers, and wrote that I was looking for undergraduate research experience. Dr. Tobias wrote back to me, set up a meeting time, and then soon I was helping him run his computer simulations.

3. How has research enhanced you education?

For one, it has given me a perspective on how scientific information is obtained in the first place. Most books I have read make science and scientists seem somewhat inhuman. Working behind the scenes has allowed me to interact directly with the types of people who make the discoveries that are presented to me in lecture. I have learned that most research never goes exactly as planned, but that one can overcome this obstacle through reading recent research papers, asking for advice from graduate students or professors, or simply working hard. It is hard to find a substitute for hands-on experience. What I learn in lab, I take back to the lecture hall with me, which makes what I learn there more tangible.

4. What has been you favorite experience with research (include any interesting stories or specific events)?

After Phillip Tam and I finished creating the phage library we began to screen it for potential binders to various enzymes and substances, such as neuraminidase, a key enzyme that helps influenza virus propagate. After four days of screening, it was time to complete an assay that would determine if I had isolated a specific binder. As I was completing the assay, the ELISA plates started lighting up with color. Naturally, Dr. Weiss, and several other people looked on excitedly, as this would give us an idea about the quality of our phage library. The specific result on the ELISA plates turned out to be mostly neutral, though the high quality of the library was later demonstrated. Dr. Weiss still took us out to dinner to celebrate. In the end, I learned not to call an experiment a victory until positive results turn up on multiple occasions.

5. What are your future plans and how has being involved in research helped to prepare you to meet your goals?

I plan on going to graduate school to obtain my doctorate. I am still not sure exactly which program I would like to apply to, but working in a lab has made me more aware of my options. It has also allowed me to become familiarized with a small subset of the potential research areas. But the skills I have learned should carry over to any sort research I choose participate in the future.

6. What advice would you give to a student interested in pursuing a faculty-mentored undergraduate research project or creative activity?

Do not be intimidated by professors, because you could be one of them if you work at it enough. If you are bold, then the best way to get started is to go directly to their office and ask them about what they do. If you are more reserved, than it might be easier to e-mail them, but then you run the risk of them never replying. Professors are busy people and get tons of e-mail each day. If you go and talk to them in person, then you have a better chance that they will pay attention to you. At any rate, I recommend research for everyone, not simply so you can put it on a resume, but because it really is something worth doing for its own good.

Past Researchers of the Month

Dec. '00 Chris Gothard
Nov. '00 Kristoffer Nicolaisen
Oct. '00 Bryan Sommerse
Sep. '00 Ryan Stafford
Aug. '00 Carol Chao
Jul. '00 Gopi Manthrapagada
Jun. '00 Heather Smith
May '00 Pany Tehrani
Apr. '00 Kirsten Cappel
Mar. '00 Shelly Brown-Riddle
Feb. '00 Nader Nassif
Jan. '00 Rebecca Kanter
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