Chemistry Pre Grad Intern Gonzalo Astudillo

Gonzalo AstudilloI transferred to The University of Texas at Austin to begin my 3rd year of college determined to get involved in research that would expand and allow me to apply my knowledge and understanding of concepts I have learned in lectures in a more practical setting. Thankfully, through the Pre-Graduate School Internship program, I participated and continue to participate in revolutionary research in a highly sophisticated lab that conducts various projects involving physical organic and supramolecular chemistry.

Dr. Eric Anslyn, the principal investigator, is a highly decorated professor and researcher. He obtained his Ph.D. in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California and conducted his postdoctoral work at Columbia University in New York where he performed research in mechanistic studies of Ribonuclease A mimics. Dr. Anslyn has received numerous research and teaching awards such as the Czarnik Award and the Ta-shue Chou Award. He currently sits as the Welch Regents Chair of Chemistry at UT Austin and oversees the research lab I have been working in: The Ansyln Lab. The project I participate in focuses on, at a basic science perspective, finding whether an aptamer can be used to impart selectivity by reacting with a synthesized probe. From an application stand point, we try to find a system that can be used to detect specific nerve agents and nerve agent surrogates at a much larger scale. Nerve agents are a huge concern for the military since other military entities use nerve gas agents as biological weapons of war. Therefore, this research is of grave importance because it can serve as counter intelligence for the US Military.

Currently, it is possible to detect between different classes of nerve agents and their corresponding surrogates fluorescently such as differentiating between fluoride or a thiol groups, but it is not possible to distinguish different nerve agents and surrogates of the same class. Creating this selective aptamer covalently bound to a peptide and a probe, nerve agents and surrogates can be detected within the same class via fluorescence. Ideally, once selection on a target has been obtained, then the aptamer system will be merged with another ensemble that when the target binds to the system, it causes a fluoride group to detach and enter an auto inductive fluorescent cascade. These systems can then be made into kits with which the military can accurately identify nerve agents by swabbing their surroundings gathering data and checking for fluorescence of specific nerve agents. The data gathered can then be used to plan accordingly or identify the entity that used the nerve agent in the area in which it was found.

Throughout my research conducted in the semester, I collaborated with Shailen Patel under the direction and guidance of Pedro Metola, my research educator, and Sam Dahlhauser, my graduate student mentor in Dr. Anslyn’s lab. The most important role we took part in was to ensure that the DNA kit we were using to create our RNA was up to standard. This is because throughout the months of April and May, the polyacrylamide and agarose gel electrophoresis experiments kept developing inconclusive results. That is, after performing lsPCR or scPCR and reverse transcription on our target ssDNA we run a PAGE experiment to isolate the ssRNA for further selection processes such as SELEX, but no ssRNA is present in the gel. The causes of error, we suspect, was due to old and unreactive material within the DNA kit. To resolve this issue, a new DNA kit was purchased, and a new ssDNA pool needed to be created. After pool prep, we helped Sam with the probe portion of the project in which we synthesized the peptide and helped isolate the oxime reaction. In doing so we performed techniques such as NMR, mass spectroscopy, TLC separation, HPLC, and rotovapping.

All in all, the research conducted by my partners and I was rather a small aspect of the project but still vitally important to its success. I am extremely thankful to have participated in Dr. Anslyn’s research lab because it has allowed me to apply what I know in a more practical setting. Additionally, I was exposed to weekly routines of graduate students in which I attended group meetings and professional meetings in which progress reports were presented to Dr. Ansyln. After graduation this summer, I plan on taking a year off to get some clinical and or research experience in my field of microbiology in Houston, Texas. I'm not positive where I'll attend graduate school yet, but the Kuhn scholarship and the IE program have made the decision to go to graduate school and other forms of professional school so much easier. It has solidified my dreams to obtain degrees passed the bachelor's degree and further feed my passion for research and intellectual development. Working with my mentor under the hood in an organic chemistry focused lab has been a tremendous experience I never thought I'd encounter. Without the IE program and the Kuhn Award, I would not have as experience and knowledge as I do now to appropriately make decisions that will determine my future life and career. Thank you!!