Life Sciences: Fostering Scientific Curiosity While Learning Remotely

November 02, 2020
Student displays research on laptop
“I barely know anything, but I can start to think about curing disease,” Anh Nguyen ’23 said. “I feel like I’m still doing something even when I’m studying.”

Covid-19 has left Soka University of America’s new Life Sciences building empty but has not stifled scientific research among students and faculty.

Within the Life Sciences concentration, three research projects are underway—two independent studies and one internship facilitated by a partnership with Soka University of Japan. The projects focus on uncharacterized genes from the yeast genome project, the design of chimeric proteins, and programming for sugar chain informatics. In total, eight students are working with three professors.

“The idea is all the students can get some novel research experience even though we can’t be together,” said Susan Walsh, director of the Life Sciences concentration.

Due to the nature of virtual school, students are currently focused on research to help them understand relevant scientific concepts. The ultimate goal for these projects, Walsh said, is for students to claim co-authorship of an academic paper written alongside their professors.

“If the students do this work and then craft a good proposal,” Walsh said, “we have a script to follow once we get into the lab.”

Anh Nguyen ’23 is a member of the independent study focusing on chimeric proteins. She said while online classes have been difficult in unforeseen ways, the intellectually engaging nature of scientific research has kept her motivated.

“Mainly I’m just curious, and as a scientist I want to understand everything,” said Nguyen, who is currently living in Vietnam.

What engages her about the chimeric protein project, taught by biochemistry professor Rob Levenson, is the potential for practical application. Each student has chosen a set of proteins to fuse with a particular function in mind, and Nguyen said hers is potentially related to cancer.

Although she’s realistic about the potential for a medically viable result, she said the process of the research still drives her.

“I barely know anything, but I can start to think about curing disease,” Nguyen said. “I feel like I’m still doing something even when I’m studying.”

Ran Fukazawa ’23 has been working with a faculty member from the Soka University of Japan on a bioinformatics project. The internship was originally planned for the summer and cancelled after the pandemic hit.

Fukazawa, who lives in Japan, reached out to the faculty member in charge of the project and asked if she could work on the internship remotely during the fall. Because the internship focuses on computer programming as a means to conduct research on sugar chains, the SUJ professor agreed.

Fukazawa came to SUA with an interest in computer programming and found something familiar in the structure of DNA.

“If we unwrap our DNA, it’s just nucleotide sequences,” Fukazawa said. “It’s just letter coding.”

Fukazawa was struck by how the seemingly infinite combinations of only four nucleotides— GTCA—can result in a world of diversity.

“That makes the human body and living organisms simple and complicated at the same time,” she said.

While her internship was originally scheduled for three months, Fukazawa hopes SUJ will extend that period so she can continue working on the project remotely into the spring.

—Casey Chaffin ’21