Grace Thiele ’17 is now ensconced in a chemistry Ph.D. program at Duke University, but says that one of her biggest motivations for pursuing such graduate studies was the research experience she had at Haverford, which culminated in her thesis.
“The unique part about doing a research-based thesis is that you gain such a deep appreciation for that field,” said the chemistry major, who also earned a concentration in biochemistry and an ACS certification at Haverford. “I feel like you are exposed to so many different sides and flavors of what a field like chemistry is like, from wet lab work to computational experiments, from scientific writing to public presentations for a general audience.”
In addition to her thesis, “Caught in the Act: Trapping Acyl Carrier Protein Interactions with a Ketosynthase”, the research that Thiele conducted in Assistant Professor Lou Charkoudian’s lab also contributed to a recent paper in the journal Biochemistry, which she co-authored.
What inspired your thesis work?
My thesis work is inspired by nature, and how nature engineers compounds called natural products. Natural products are important and relevant because they have bioactive properties as antibiotics, antifungals, and can also be harnessed as biofuels. The key part, as well as the most interesting part in my thesis, is how we make natural products using assembly lines of enzymes.
More specifically, in the in the lab of my thesis advisor, Lou Charkoudian, I draw inspiration from work done by previous seniors Matt Johnson ’14 and Connie Friedman ’15. One of the major players in natural product assembly lines called polyketide synthases (PKSs) and fatty acid synthases (FASs), named for the type of natural product they create, is the acyl carrier protein (ACP). The ACP is ubiquitous, tethering beginnings of a natural product onto its characteristically fast-moving arm. The dynamic movements of this arm make the ACP as interesting to study as difficult, challenging traditional techniques commonly used to study protein conformation. Matt proved that attaching a probe on the end of this arm made it possible to visualize its movements using infrared spectroscopy. Connie sought to take this method a step further to see if the same probe could be used to look at ACP-partner protein interactions. Her finding was unexpected, and that result became the basis of my thesis work.
What did you learn from working on your thesis?
I think I learned a lot about the field and the system I was studying, but I think perhaps more importantly, I learned how to go through the process and be successful. Scientific research has a lot to do with setting goals that work towards a larger question. This process is also very related to solving problems and adapting your strategies as new challenges appear.
One of the most important skills that I developed was being able to pivot and shift my perspective in order to evaluate a question or problem in a new light. I think another major takeaway from my experience is the power of collaboration and dialogue during the process. Being able to talk to my advisor and other students in the lab was such a big part of working through rougher obstacles, helping to refine my ideas and therefore work more efficiently.
Photo by Holden Blanco ’17.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.