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Meet Ryan Swimley: An Undergraduate Chemistry Researcher at MSU

What is your name, institution, major, and graduation year?

My name is Ryan Swimley, I am currently studying professional chemistry at Montana State University and will be graduating in the spring of 2022.

Why did you choose to join a research lab and what has the research, benchwork, or specific techniques taught you about a career in science?

When I was a freshman, I was initially a chemical engineering student, meaning that undergraduate research was something that I didn’t have to do and wasn’t planning on participating in while in my undergraduate years. I eventually switched from chemical engineering to a professional chemistry degree, in part due to some inspiration from my professor at the time. I had asked him about some of the research that was happening in the department, and he put me in contact with the professor that he thought I would get along with who would become my Principal Investigator. By the next semester, I was working in the lab doing wet work, reading associated papers, and loving every second of it. I have been working in the lab ever since.

What I learned from working in the lab over the past 18 months is that a career in science requires you to understand a multitude of different scientific fields in order to better understand the problem that you are working on. As a chemistry student, we are expected to deeply understand math, physics, chemistry, and biology just to be able to go through our undergraduate program. While working in a biochemistry research lab, those 4 are constantly in play with each other. We look at the proteins we are working on as both molecules and organisms and have to treat them as both. While it is possible to cut an aspect of those sciences out of your future, science is how they all play with each other.

What have you learned from the lab and how has your role contributed to the field of research?

I have learned how to grow and purify proteins under anaerobic conditions, check the purity of proteins, use analytical techniques to characterize quantities of proteins, as well as determine reactants of protein chemistry. Currently, I’m starting to develop protein crystals under anaerobic environments for X-ray diffraction. While the project that I am working on is still working on developing the desired protein crystal for diffraction, the proteins that I work with have been used to help develop a better understanding of one of the mechanisms that our proteins of interest undergo.

What are your career goals and how has your undergrad research experience helped with this?

When first starting in the lab, I didn’t know what I was going to do after my undergraduate program. After starting to get more in-depth with the research, I realized that I wanted to continue to do research for a long time. My short-term career goal is to go to graduate school and get my Ph.D. in some field of chemistry.

My long-term career is to become a professor at a university and try to inspire college students the same way that my professors have inspired me. Ultimately, working in undergraduate research has helped me realize that I love both science and the act of research. Undergraduate research has honestly helped me see what I want to do for the rest of my life.

What is the most exciting aspect of the lab you are in? What is the future application of this? What is something that a non-scientist would find interesting/should know about?

We are working with radical S-Adenosyl-L-methionine (SAM) enzymes, which are one of the largest superfamilies of enzymes in the world and are rapidly expanding. These enzymes host a variety of functions, from amino acid epimerization to DNA repair to hydrogen formation.

One of the most exciting aspects of the lab is the work on one of these enzymes, Hydrogenase A, which will create hydrogen gas when equipped with a [4Fe-4S] cluster and a [2Fe-2S] subcluster called the “H-cluster”. Should the mechanism of the entire Hydrogenase family be discovered, this would allow us to generate hydrogen gas biologically. This coupled with hydrogen powered battery cells would be another source of clean energy. That is what I tell non-scientist friends when they ask: we are trying to biologically create hydrogen gas that can be used as clean energy.

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