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Centennial Scholar: From PCC Graduate to the PhD Graduate Program at Johns Hopkins

Jaclyn Smith and Dr. Genevieve Van de Bittner in the lab
Jaclyn Smith and Dr. Genevieve Van de Bittner

When Jaclyn Smith, a Centennial Scholar and Caldwell Fellow, graduated from the Wilson College of Textiles last May, she took with her an impressive list of achievements: a B.S. in Polymer & Color Chemistry (PCC) – Medical Textiles Concentration, a B.S. in Biochemistry, and minors in Genetics and Biotechnology. Those credentials and connections she made with past Centennials led her to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where this fall she started in the Biochemistry, Cellular, and Molecular Biology Ph.D. program. Read how the Centennial Scholarship program helped lead Jaclyn to two summers of research at Harvard with Wilson College of Textiles’ alumni which ultimately helped change her career path.

How did you choose to dual major in PCC and Biochemistry at NC State?
When I first entered college, I didn’t know what I wanted to major in.  I started out in Textiles and randomly picked PCC since I had enjoyed chemistry in high school.  It turned out to be a great spur of the moment choice since I really enjoyed learning about applications of chemistry.  When I took the introductory biochemistry course, I really enjoyed the new perspective on the biopolymers I was learning about in PCC.  I added the double major to get a complex understanding of the chemistry of biopolymers and their biological functions.

In the summer of 2013, you interned at the A. A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School under Wilson College of Textiles’ alumnus Dr. Jacob M. Hooker.  How did you find out about this internship? 
Former PCC undergrad Ian Hill, who participated in this internship in 2011, reached out to me about the chance to work with Dr. Hooker.

What was the process for obtaining the internship?  
I talked with Ian about his experience in the lab and then e-mailed Jacob with my resume asking if I could join his lab over the summer. We Skyped about the summer and then, after I secured funding, it was a done deal.

Describe the project you worked on. 
While I was in the lab, I worked primarily with Post-Doc Dr. Genevieve Van de Bittner on a project to image synapses in the brain. I focused on synthesizing a compound known to bind to a target protein found on synapses. I used Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to determine the chemical structures of the products I made and used liquid chromatography/mass spectroscopy (LC/MS) to determine if product was formed by separating compounds in my reaction and measuring the masses. We used methylation as a means to radioactively label the compound of interest, allowing it to be detected by Positron Emission Tomography, a nuclear technique commonly used by doctors to detect physiological changes and chemical reactions in the body. I screened conditions for the methylation reaction using cold compounds and then worked with High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) to separate my product from the precursor. I repeated the reaction with radioactive Carbon-11 to radiolabel the compound. The compound was tested to see whether or not it could cross the blood-brain barrier, a protective junction between the blood and the extracellular fluid of the brain. In the end, the compound crossed the blood-brain barrier, but did not have binding specificity and affinity sufficient for imaging applications.

What classes (or experiences) from NC State did you feel were valuable during your internship? 
I used a lot of skills from classes I took in the Wilson College of Textiles. I used the laboratory analytical skills from my PCC lab classes, and I also was able to apply concepts from organic chemistry and PCC 106.

Why did you decide to intern at Harvard again in the summer of 2014?
My first summer in the Hooker lab was a new experience for me. There was a steep learning curve since I had never been in a research lab before. I wanted a second summer experience since I knew there was a lot left to learn. While my first summer experience was spent learning the ropes of different techniques, my second summer was a more authentic research experience where I could design and execute my own experiments.

What project did you work on?
I worked on the same project as my previous summer, but through a new lens. In order to develop Positron Emission Tomography (PET) radiotracers, there must be a way to prove that the radioactive molecules are binding to the target of interest. Changes in the level of binding should be able to give us information about the human brain in a non-invasive manor. I worked to develop an assay that could prove tracer-target engagement. We hope to use the assay to screen molecules quickly to determine if they are good tracer candidates.

Dr. Jacob Hooker (Wilson College Alumnus), Jaclyn Smith, and Ian Hill (Wilson College Alumnus)
Dr. Jacob Hooker (Wilson College Alumnus), Jaclyn Smith, and Ian Hill (Wilson College Alumnus)

Did you do any undergraduate research while at NC State?  If so, please describe it.
I worked in Dr. Harold Freeman’s lab during senior year. I synthesized dyes from the Max A. Weaver Dye Library to get more experience with organic chemistry. I am now working on a project designed to create derivatives of dyes to improve their wash-fastness.

What did you gain from being a Centennial Scholar that helped you while at NC State and what things do you think it will help you throughout your life/career? 
The Centennial Scholarship helped me by introducing me to upperclassmen students who were in my major and who could provide me with advice. Ian Hill, a Wilson College of Textiles’ alumnus in the Class of 2013, introduced me to Jacob Hooker and helped me craft my enrichment proposal surrounding a summer internship in the Hooker lab. If I hadn’t met Ian, I am fairly certain that my life would have had a different trajectory. From my experience as a Centennial Scholar, I would like to give back to NC State in the same way that Jacob Hooker has done, by providing internships to young students in a field where they may not normally have access. It was this experience that has shaped my career so significantly that I must do the same for others in the future.

What was/were your favorite thing(s) about being an undergrad in Textiles?
I like the small class sizes where I have been able to get to know my cohort of students. There is always to someone in the lounge or at Port City Java to chat with between classes.

This fall you begin graduate school at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in the Biochemistry, Cellular, and Molecular Biology Ph.D. program.  After you earn your Ph.D., what field do you hope to go in?
After I earn my Ph.D., I hope to run my own lab. Right now, I am interested in the biological functions underlying human diseases, particularly neurological diseases. I want to be part of the understanding of these complex diseases on a cellular level and to help find treatments to cure them.