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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Student experiences research first-hand

Published: September 13, 2013
Section: News

There is something to be said about the opportunities open to Brandeis students to work with world-renowned professors and researchers in professional settings. Mehraj Awal ’14 knows exactly what these opportunities are, having worked in the Petsko-Ringe lab on campus since Jan. 2011 researching Alzheimer’s disease, which currently has no cure. It is in this setting that he has learned much more than the classroom can offer him and gained invaluable experience working with professors, post-doctoral fellows and graduate and undergraduate students coming from a wide variety of backgrounds. He says that the most rewarding aspect of working in this lab is “receiving the level of respect and mentorship that I have” from colleagues that have greater experience than himself, and the experience has been “quite eye-opening.”

Awal, a biochemistry major, focuses his work in the lab on the structures of proteins involved with Alzheimer’s. He and his colleagues are looking for ways in which proteins from Alzheimer’s cases differ from proteins of a normal case, and want to determine whether or not these differences are what cause the disease. With a potential knowledge of the protein structures that cause Alzheimer’s, Awal hopes to find ways to revert the protein structures to work properly by finding small molecules that cause these initial changes.

He states that the number of Alzheimer’s cases has gone up as life expectancy has risen over the recent years, since “about 90 percent of this disease is late-onset.” And while an increase among any disease is dire news, it makes Awal’s work all the more important. Finding drugs that can slow down the progression of the most common form of dementia, stop its development or even prevent it in the first place will have a tremendous effect on a multitude of patients who are dealing with this debilitating illness by greatly increasing their quality of life.

When asked about the possibility of other conclusions than those he is looking for being derived from his research, Awal states that not much more is expected beyond discovering the protein structures of Alzheimer’s disease. However, the proteins under research in the Petsko-Ringe lab are also of relevance to Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and other degenerative disorders. More research into the proteins that cause Alzheimer’s will hopefully help bring new insights into these diseases.

While the work Awal has been doing in the lab may help people across the globe, he has also benefitted personally from the experience. Awal has been introduced to a field of science he had never heard of before coming onto campus: structural biology. He credits his mentor Vincent Mecozzi, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab, with guiding him through his almost three years of research and teaching him how to work in a professional lab setting.

“[My] experience in this lab, working with undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs and faculty, will be invaluable as I apply to graduate programs,” he said. His work in the lab has prepared him to design his own projects in the future and attempt other projects on his own. Being present in the lab has shown him new techniques in the field of structural biology as they are developed, an advantage over just taking a course in the subject.

Awal, who is also the co-president of the South Asian Student Association and vice-president of the Archery Club at Brandeis, admits that his ideas for a future career have been expanded since he started working at the lab. His original plan was to enter medical school, but he has since fallen in love with research after his experience in the Petsko-Ringe lab. He can imagine himself working in a research facility after college “and loving it all the same, if not more.”

College is about much more than just showing up to class and graduating in four years, and Mehraj Awal exemplifies that.