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One day, in the distant future, the experiments Evgenia Nikolova ’06 (Stara Zagora, Bulgaria) is conducting could play a role in the fight against world hunger.

Since the spring, she has been working with David Husic, Larkin Professor and head of chemistry, to learn how an enzyme on unicellular green algae could help specific microscopic plants acquire carbon dioxide.

“It turns out that this algae utilizes carbon dioxide from the air much more effectively than many terrestrial plants,” Husic says.

Nikolova, a biochemistry major, adds, “In the future, if it’s well studied, [the carbon dioxide uptake mechanism] could possibly be implemented into higher plants so they would have the same ability to acquire carbon dioxide inorganic carbon in a more effective way.”

They are working together through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

Before crop productivity can be boosted by increasing the plants’ ability to gather fuel from the air and generate carbohydrates through photosynthesis, the algae must broken down to the molecular level so its properties are fully understood.

That’s where Nikolova comes in.

“What Evgenia is working on is a characterization of a form of the enzyme that exists on the outer surface of that single cell,” Husic says. “We’re interested in understanding the process by which it’s converted into a functional form when synthesized. We’re also interested in its structural properties and how it’s related to the functional proteins of the enzyme.”

While Nikolova’s experiments with the enzyme are small scale compared to the grandiose applications it could one day have on how plants absorb carbon dioxide, she explains that that even the smallest advances in the research have huge implications.

“We have found new discoveries in the characterization of the enzyme,” Nikolova says. ” They offer some clues that might make us think in a certain way, a way that might direct our research.”

“It’s interesting — it’s my first encounter with actual scientific work that can be of any benefit of all,” she adds.

Nikolova’s experience in the lab will not only prepare her for biochemistry courses and graduate school, it will also teach her the basics of a career in research, says Husic, who worked informally with her on research of a similar nature last year.

“I think she’ll learn how to approach a research problem, how to put together an experiment,” he adds. “All in all, the goal is to have her begin to think the way scientists think — how to collect data, analyze, experiment, and refine experiments.”

Working alone in a lab also has taught her independence in her thought processes, self-discipline in patiently conducting her experiments, and creativity in deciding how to proceed with an experiment.

“I am able to make decisions if an experiment goes in a certain direction and can see what other directions I can take based on the data I’ve acquired,” she says.

A bonus has been discovering that she can work successfully in a position tied to her chosen career path, says Nikolova, who adds that working full-time this summer on a project related to her major was “invigorating.”

She is a member of the American Chemical Society and International Students Association, tutors in math and chemistry, plays intramural ping pong, and is a library assistant.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty-two students were accepted to present their work at the last annual conference in April.

Categorized in: Academic News