Courtney Carroll '11 in the lab.
Courtney Carroll '11 in the lab.
Obesity in the United States has become a major concern for obvious reasons. Some blame its increase on unstable family situations, increased time in front of the television set, or fading self-esteem. But the ordinary citizen will not point to Neuropeptide Y, the most abundant protein in the human nervous system. Courtney Carroll '11 is working with Associate Professor of Chemistry Myriam Cotten to find out whether this peptide has a direct effect on food intake and decreased physical activity. The amount of Neuropeptide Y lurking in the microscopic corners of a person's cells may have an impact on his or her diet. 

A peptide is a short polymer, or a chain of amino acids. As most high school students learn during the course of their education, amino acids are the "building blocks of protein." Carroll is researching how these proteins interact with lipids by observing them in mock cell membranes. Because Cotten's area of expertise is anti-microbial peptides, they are also focusing on how Neuropeptide Y might exhibit some anti-microbial effects. That is, it could kill certain bacteria that aid in maintaining homeostasis. Professional researchers have contemplated creating a blocker for Neuropeptide Y that would help people with severe obesity to normalize their eating habits. 

Although Carroll won't go as far as to discover this blocker any time soon, this summer she plans to study how the protein and lipids make contact. More specifically, she will see what shape it takes when it comes near the lipids in the cell membrane and how this could shed light on its nature. 

Carroll acknowledges the complexity of what she is trying to do. "My project is extremely expensive and takes a long time," said Carroll. "The small amount of peptide we ordered cost $2,000 and I'm working with 36 amino acids while the other students are working with 23." 

A daunting task for the researchers was sorting through the chemically-labeled amino acids. Then they sent them to the University of Texas, where scientists are currently working on assembling them in the proper order. The completed chain of amino acids will return to campus soon, and Carroll will immediately have to purify it, add it to the lipid membrane, and spread the resulting concoction on two slides. Next, the group of students working on similar projects to Carroll's will fly to Florida around mid-July, where they will use Florida State University's Solid State NMR to look at their results. 

This project is the first to test Neuropeptide Y's behavior in a bilayer, or a double layer of closely packed atoms or molecules. Previous researchers have encountered problems with solution-based experimentation because the molecules behave differently in this medium. In addition, bilayers do not have the distorting effects that other protein surfaces have had in the past because there is little curvature.
Another component of Carroll's research is testing Neuropeptide Y's anti-fungal behavior, or its ability to ward off fungi. Previous scholarly articles state that if the protein is cut so that only a small section of it is used, it can take on fungus-killing properties that might help patients who are immune-deficient and thus vulnerable to fatal fungi. 

Carroll hopes to pursue medical research in the future, and enjoys the day-to-day, meticulous work with small molecules that this project affords. She is interested in both biochemistry (her major) and neuroscience, and her work this summer will give her good experience in both areas. Eventually she wants to get a Ph.D. and do pharmaceutical research at a company. 

Alzheimer's disease is another topic that Carroll finds fascinating. "Where does your mind go?" she asked. "I've worked so hard throughout my life and I am so proud of all my accomplishments, and the idea that I could lose all that scares me." The loss of achievement coupled with the disappearance of memory makes her even more intrigued. "Our memories are who we are," she said. 

The summer research program is something students should take advantage of, says Carroll. Most of the time professors will guide students through the procedure, but for the most part, they will let you work on your own. 

"The independence really gives you feelings of self-worth and self-ownership," she said. "And it's not just all serious work. I like the sense of camaraderie between the chemistry students. We have dance-offs and it's a ton of fun." 

Besides being an active student academically, Carroll is a member of Gospel Choir, Hogwarts at Hamilton, One Heart with Africa, Emerson Literary Society, HEAG (Hamilton Environmental Action Group), and is a resident advisor.

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