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Marquis Scholar Frank Cortazar ’07 (Miami, Fla.) has found himself on the cutting edge of a research problem scientists have been struggling to solve for decades.

A biology major, Cortazar is researching how to stabilize a repair protein called DNA photolyase, which can inhibit the damaging effects of the sun, in order to fully understand how it works.

“Ultraviolet (UV) light causes mutations in DNA, or errors in the way DNA replicates, which can lead to cancer in some organisms and death in some others,” says Cortazar, who plays third base on the baseball team.

He is conducting the research with Yvonne Gindt, assistant professor of chemistry, and in collaboration with New York University. 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.

“What we’re really trying to do is understand the actual mechanism in which the DNA recognizes that it needs repair,” Gindt says, adding that getting to that stage is complex because the repair protein needs very specific conditions to remain stable.

Since humans don’t have DNA photolyase, understanding the repair process could help scientists model a drug with the same chemical signature as the repair enzyme, which would prevent UV radiation from permanently damaging humans, Cortazar says.

Many things must happen before significant results would occur, however, which is where his research comes into play. Cortazar is systematically attempting to stabilize the protein by testing which environmental conditions keep it most stable. It’s a process, he says, that can be challenging.

“The protein is pretty fickle, so it’s really hard to work with. You have to keep it at certain temperatures at all times and the amount of oxygen that it comes in contact with is very important,” he explains.

Gindt says Cortazar has proven very capable in the lab.

“Given that the experiments he is conducting have never been done before, he has the right mentality to be able to break down the experimentation process to figure out what the next step is going to be,” she says.

Cortazar doesn’t know whether his future will take him to medical school or graduate school, but either way, this research is teaching him things a classroom setting never could.

“We’re kind of on the frontier here — trying to discover things that haven’t ever been discovered,” he explains.

His research is teaching him to think analytically about how to conduct an experiment without any known results, a skill all researchers must possess.

“That is how real science is done. If you knew everything, you would never have to do research,” he adds.

Chosen from among Lafayette’s most promising applicants, Marquis Scholars such as Cortazar receive special financial aid and distinctive educational experiences and benefits, including a three-week, Lafayette-funded study-abroad course during January’s interim session between semesters. Marquis Scholars also participate in cultural activities in major cities and on campus, and mentoring programs with Lafayette faculty.

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 last year’s annual conference.

Categorized in: Academic News