DPhil, Department of Chemistry
Project: Synthetic proteins as probes of oncological disease and disease mechanism
Sarah completed a BSc in Chemistry at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, before moving to the Australian National University’s Research School of Chemistry to undertake a one year Honours degree. Her work during this time focused on investigating radical stabilization effects in the active site of Pyruvate Formate Lyase Activating Enzyme using both structural biology techniques and computational modelling. Sarah is currently studying for a DPhil in Chemical Biology in the Ben Davis group.
What’s your current research and how could it impact patients?
Inside the nuclei of cells, DNA is tightly packed into structures called chromosomes. The first level of DNA packing is winding around a lump of proteins called a nucleosome. This nucleosome can have extra chemical groups added to it to change how the nearby DNA interacts with proteins in the rest of the nucleus. Some of these chemical groups are very small- only 0.01% of the mass of the nucleosome- but they can have huge changes in how the DNA interacts. I’m studying how addition of a tiny chemical modification (methylation at H3K36) allows the DNA to interact with proteins that protect it from the damage which causes cancer. I’m using a combination of chemical synthesis and biochemical techniques to make synthetic nucleosomes which I can then study. Many mutations which lead to cancer arise because the cell’s DNA protection mechanisms break down, and understanding how this modification protects the DNA is the first step towards designing new diagnostic tools and treatments.
What does being involved in cancer research mean to you?
Cancer has affected many members of my family, particularly on my mother’s side. Being involved in cancer research means having my mum be proud of what I do (even if my project is difficult to explain sometimes!)
What does a typical day look like for you?
I wake up between 5:30 and 6 am to train for rowing. Then I head into the lab by 9 am and work until about 7 pm on planning, carrying out and analysing experiments, reading and writing research reports, listening to talks from other researchers or presenting my work in a meeting.