Protein crystallography leads to structural insight and skills for graduate school


A biochemistry and molecular biology major, Julia Thibault is set to graduate from Hastings College in May. By taking part in the University of Missouri Summer Research in Biochemistry program, Thibault feels more prepared as she considers which graduate school to attend.

With a small group of three other students (two undergraduates and one graduate), Thibault worked with a protein called phosphoglucomutase 1 (PGM1), which is involved in the human metabolism.

“If the protein is mutated, then it won’t work anymore because it is needed to process sugars; it regulates whether those sugars are going to be stored in the body or whether they’re going to be used for energy,” said Thibault. “If PGM is not functioning properly, it results in a disease called phosphoglucomutase 1 deficiency. If you’re deficient in the protein then you’re going to have some metabolic problems.”

The research program took place at the University of Missouri, a large school with about 33,000 students, where she was provided room and board, a faculty mentor, a stipend and nine weeks to perform full-time research in a lab.

“I’m really glad I had this smaller, tight-knit community at Hastings College to do undergraduate work because now I feel almost more prepared to go to a bigger graduate school,” she said. “I feel like I have a stronger foundation because of the smaller class sizes, where I can talk to all of my professors. I’ve been able to grow more here than I would have been able to at a larger school.”

The goal of the research was to look at mutations that had been identified in PGM1 to see what sort of effect the mutations have on the structure of the protein. Thibault said even small changes can have a profound effect on the structure of the protein and how it functions.

“Hopefully the research will give us insight into how to treat PGM1 deficiency, pharmaceutically or therapeutically, for patients with that specific mutation,” she said. “The goal in this stage of research is to acquire knowledge about the disease.”

Hard summer work utilized in future endeavors

Now back at school to finish up her last year, Thibault can see the benefits of the research program in her classroom work and for her senior seminar project. With this opportunity, she had the chance to discover if this kind of work is what she wants to continue to do.

“This experience definitely helped me figure out what specifically I enjoy about research,” she said. “A summer research program gives you something to put on your resume, but more importantly, it gives insight into the research process and can help you confirm that it’s something you really want to and devote your life to.”

A poster event at the end of the REU gave Thibault an opportunity to share her research with other attending students.

“It was really cool just being able to talk with everybody and share the research process,” she said. “It’s a great feeling to see what you and the friends you’ve made over the summer have accomplished in such a short amount of time. You create a poster, write an abstract and then you present it, so that’s another skill set you build.”

She also learned about multi-tasking—due to working with protein and bacterial growth and tracking its progress—how to organize her work, build on her communication skills and how to network with professionals.

Story by Amanda Miller, a senior from Woodland Park, Colorado majoring in journalism