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A problem with proteins produces a different kind of outcome

Senior biochemistry major Michelle Landahl wanted a summer research project to help answer longtime questions about particular types of cellular proteins. Things didn’t work out as planned.

Michelle Sandahl '16 with her undergraduate research mentor, Assistant Professor Sara Triffo

By Sarah Mulnick ‘17

What can sometimes be difficult about conducting research isn’t asking good questions. It’s figuring out the steps you’d take to even find the answers.

Just ask Michelle Landahl.

For much of the past year, the Elon University biochemistry major from outside of Chicago has sought answers to a longtime scientific puzzle: how do certain types of proteins that “anchor” themselves onto cellular walls even work?

Lipid anchored fusion proteins are a type of protein on a cell membrane. Scientists believe they likely play a role in cell signaling and proper cellular function. Some researchers even speculate they influence the development of cancer, among other diseases.

“If we can understand the mechanism behind so many of these conditions,” Landahl said, “we can start treating the cause and not just the symptoms.”

After teaming last year with Assistant Professor Sara Triffo to plan the project, Landahl applied to Elon’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience, which provided support last summer to measure the impact of the cellular building blocks.

How? By producing a synthetic protein on Elon's campus that would allow her to study the interaction of lipid anchored proteins with cell membranes. Cellular membranes have been an ongoing area of scholarly research for Triffo, making her the perfect mentor for Landahl.

“Dr. Triffo and I investigated something that is unknown and not understood by the medical community quite yet, so anything that we discovered would be beneficial to the field that I want to go into,” Landahl said.

Students at SURE spend eight weeks during the summer working full-time on a project in collaboration with a faculty mentor with substantial and recognized expertise in the discipline. Many of the projects from SURE will be presented in April at the Student Undergraduate Research Forum – and Landahl’s is no exception.

Triffo said that working with Landahl was made better because of the senior’s ambition and drive to make the project succeed.

“She found sources I didn’t always know about, and she reached out to other people with questions,” Triffo said. “She takes a lot of pride in the work she’s done.”

Her final poster project, however, didn’t contain the answers Landahl had hoped to obtain. After producing and harvesting her protein from E.coli cells, Landahl discovered that fully purifying the protein – “separating” it from the rest of the E.coli – wasn’t possible given the procedure she had planned.

Disappointing? Of course. But the shortcomings don’t deter Landahl, whose current plans are to work as an EMT for a few years before returning to graduate school for physician assistant studies or, possibly, hospital administration.

The research process on its own has given her a broader understanding of the challenges that doctors in hospitals sometimes face. Her understanding will make her a better leader.

“This project taught me to have confidence in myself, that I am very capable academically and in a working environment. No mater what the situation, usually two, three, or four heads is better than one,” she said. “Sometimes, you just have to take a deep breath and come back to it tomorrow. Patience is a virtue, and very valuable one. You will fail, but that doesn't mean you're a failure.

“And perhaps most importantly, my research experience has shown me that any seemingly impossible task can be tackled if approached in the right way and with enough determination and heart.”




Eric Townsend,
3/5/2016 10:00 AM