Student Profile in Lipid Nanoparticles
Mentor: Daniel Siegwart, Ph.D.
Undergraduate Degree: Biochemistry
Undergraduate Institution: Baylor University
Hometown: Memphis, TN.
Awards/Fellowships: NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP); Chemistry Biology Interface (CBI) Predoctoral Training Grant Awardee; Ronald E. McNair Scholar
How did you become interested in science and/or research?
My interest in science began in my eighth-grade science class. My teacher, Mr. Morgan, had a teaching style that was unorthodox at the time. After teaching a concept, he tasked the students to design our own experiments, collect and analyze the data, and make rational conclusions based off that concept. For the acids and bases section of the class, my lab group designed an experiment where we collected saliva samples from teachers who drank coffee and those that did not. We then analyzed the effects of coffee on saliva acidity; we concluded that coffee made saliva acidic and could adversely affect teeth. Although a simple experiment, aspects of Mr. Morgan's class like this really got me interested in science. My acceptance into the Ronald E. McNair Scholar's program gave me my first true introduction to independent research. The support of the program and my undergraduate mentor, Dr. Daniel Romo, really showed me that I could do research for a career and those lessons and guidance are still with me today!
Please describe your research.
Lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) have been essential for the delivery of mRNA in the development of COVID-19 vaccines. The Siegwart lab focuses on lipid nanoparticles as carriers of siRNA, mRNA, and CRISPR-Cas9 editing for the development of genetic medicine to treat diseases. My current project concerns the synthesis of novel zwitterionic amino lipids (ZALs), a class of delivery materials that combine the chemistry of two LNP components into a single molecule, and these molecules have shown efficacy for mRNA delivery. ZALs could allow for the formulation of 3-component LNPs with enhanced molecular interactions between the amphipathic lipids and mRNA molecules within the LNP as compared to the standard 4 component LNPs as seen in recent, effective vaccines.
Why did you choose UT Southwestern?
Personally, I chose to come to UTSW for a few reasons. The chief reason for me was the versatility of the science. When I came to graduate school, I was not fully sure what type of research I wanted to conduct, though I was sure that I wanted to work at the interface of chemistry and biology as my previous work had prepared me. During interviews this was a high talking point for me regarding my ability to conduct this type research. I was able to select a plethora of potential advisors that had projects at this interface. Additionally, UTSW had recently received a Chemistry-Biology Interface grant that really intrigued me as this was literally the research I wanted to conduct. Outside of research, I believed Dallas would be a nice city to not only work, but also live. As, an avid sports fan, the access to multiple professional teams was a big plus! Additionally, I realized that if I was to present at conferences in the future, it would be nice to have major airports and Dallas has two. Overall, I really felt welcomed during interview weekend and previous interactions like the SURF program during my summer going into senior year.
What do you think makes the Biological Chemistry Program one of the best?
The biochemistry department here at UTSW has a rich history, including multiple Nobel Prize winners. I believe the program has stayed so strong and one of the top in the country because the same drive that led to Nobel prizes still resides here today, and the professors too. The research conducted in the Biochemistry department continues to progress science in multiple areas. From the development of novel gene-editing technology to the elucidation of vital biochemical processes, the biochemistry department is making great strides. Additionally, the funding to conduct this research is abundant. The program has utilized its acquired pedigree to continue to grow and improve the department to stay a staple program in the country. Furthermore, the biochemistry program realizes the vitality of collaboration. One can find biochemistry labs working with organic chemists and biologists regularly. Here, teamwork really does make the dream work!
What do you love about the Biological Chemistry Program?
In addition to the working collaborations in the biochemistry program, we interact socially as well. Every year we have fun retreats that allow us to get to know those in the program better, and often times we share this experience with the organic chemistry department! As a person who enjoys chemistry and biology, these retreats are great to have fun and learn more about the fields! Additionally, the program will have random socials with desserts, department t-shirts, food (of course), and more off-campus. As an innately social person, I really love the fact that the biochemistry program gets to do great science and have fun too!
– Joshua Robinson, Biological Chemistry Graduate Program