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Dr. Phil Mixter

For the final class, Dr. Phil Mixter told us that we would discuss the tango. Earlier in the semester, we might have been confused at the dance reference. This was, after all, general microbiology. But Dr. Mixter had been using the dance analogy all semester long. It started with the class when he handed out ping pong balls to the students in the front of the class and asked students to pass the balls to the rhythm of JB’s funk music, “Pass the Peas”. No one expects the biology professor to bust a move in the front of the class, but that’s exactly what Dr. Mixter did when explaining the electron transport chain in mitochondria.

He showed us the rhythm and his favorite dance move to help us understand the movement of electrons along the chain. After that, everyone was at class every time, waiting to see the next move he would break out. For me, it was the tango that made the decision, sparked my interest and led to my desire to become a researcher in immunology and signal transduction. Dr. Mixter was teaching us the immunological role of T-cells and B-cells and the visualization of TH1 cell catching the beat, otherwise known as receiving the signal from macrophage to activate the antigen presenting cell, to start the formal, precise and beautiful dance of immunology.

With the Helper T cell starting the same dance and activating the B-cells, the body begins tango after tango, dance after dance to ward off intruders. From that moment on, I knew that I wanted to study signal transduction, to understand every beat of the dance. Like every good conductor, I knew the key was to learn the instruments and learn the music. Because most ligands, or signals, in mammalian cells are composed of proteins, I decided to study more about the proteins. My beginning was with the basics, an understanding of how the proteins worked.

To learn to read this layer of the music, I began with the X-ray crystallography lab at Washington State University’s School of Molecular Biology. As any good apprentice does, I started by working – a year-long independent research course learning about protein purification and crystallization in the lab. Dr. ChulHee Kang was the band leader, head of the lab, and began with teaching the overall concepts of X-ray technology. The specific music Dr. Kang was trying to unravel was the structural role of intermediate enzymes involved in the phenylpropanoid pathway.

The pathway starting from phenylalanine generates important byproducts functioning as anti-oxidants. Anti-oxidants are believed to help cancer prevention in mammalian cells and play a protective role in plants growth. Researchers speculate that the Japanese live longer than other people in the world because they consume lots of soybeans and green tea which contains phenylpropanoid products. As a newcomer to the orchestra, my first assignment was to purify hydroxylcinnamoyl transferase (HCT). HCT is a significant enzyme involved in the pathway. My instrument in the orchestra was a column chromatography used for purification.

I learned it well under the guidance of a post-doctoral researcher in the lab. My next lessons in the orchestra came from Dr. Youn, who had once been a post-doctoral researcher in Dr. Kang’s lab. To learn more about the power of X-ray and its usefulness for structural biologists, I followed Dr. Youn to the University of California at Berkley in August, 2006. Dr. Youn’s favored instrument was the ALS (advanced light source) located in Lawrence Berkley National Lab. I served as an understudy, watching over his shoulder as he taught me the tricks of playing this delicate instrument.

I became an ALS user to get into the high-secured national lab and was impressed with the passion of researchers from all over the world. After a year in Berkley learning from one master, I was ready to move on to the training of another conductor. This time, I was studying with Dr. August and graduate student Qian Qi in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Services at Penn State University. The music here was different, but so very beautiful. Dr. August’s theme, his major area of study, is the regulation of immune response by protein tyrosine kinase (PTK). PTK is an enzyme involved in cellular signal transduction.

This was the dance I had learned to love from that tango class. In addition to two classes of PTK, the lab focuses on the non-receptor tyrosin kinase, ITK. Andrew T. Miller posits that the ITK promotes TH2 cell differentiation with the aid of transcription factor, T-bet whereas Eun Sook Hwang suggest the T-bet is crucial in TH1 differentiation and another transcription factor, GATA-3 is important for TH2 development. Qian Qi, one of graduate students in the lab, is studying about this regulation of T-cell development by ITK with T-bet regulation. I was learning basic lab skills and knowledge about the intracellular signals.

I did PCR, DNA purification, transformation, western blot, and flow cytometry to express ITK level with the regulation of T-bet under the watchful eye of Qian Qi, who showed me that the maestro is not the only member of the orchestra with something to teach. This is the lab I am presently working in. I believe the next step in my musical education is the chemistry-biology interface program at Johns Hopkins University. With the ultimate goal of becoming maestro myself, in pharmaceutical research, I believe that I should complete additional training to learn more of the instruments that comprise the orchestra.

My experience thus far has been extensive and confirmed the love of the tango of immunology and signal transduction, but it is far from complete. I need to further develop my knowledge of a working researcher lab and graduate from the ranks of music student to assistant conductor and eventually to conductor. The analogy to music is incomplete as I want to learn more than just how the music is composed and why it sounds good together; I want to understand what we can do to help the music to continue, to ensure that the T-cells and B-cells continue their intricate dance.

Clearly, immunology is one of the most fascinating forms of research because we have so many crippling and killing diseases that begin as a dysfunction in the signal transduction. Finding the one note, or the chord, or the piece of music to stop this dysfunction is the greatest dream that a conductor can have and it is the one that I hold dear. I want to unlock the secrets of immunology and use the answers to help make people well. After all, everyone should be able to enjoy the dance.

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