SMU pre-med student finds intellectual rewards in biofuels research

Hilary Hopkins in an SMU lab

SMU sophomore Hilary Hopkins conducts biofuels research through the University’s Undergraduate Research Assistantship program.

Hilary Hopkins is an SMU sophomore majoring in biochemistry, with a minor in English. As a pre-medical student studying for a career in pediatrics, she plans to become a key player in children’s health.

But as an undergraduate researcher, she’s tapping into the chemical structure of a fungus that could become a key player in the future of sustainable fuels.

Hopkins was one of 14 students in SMU’s new Summer Research Assistantships (SRAs) program. SRAs allow students to work full-time during summer months on research projects in disciplines across the University.

> Learn how to apply for a research assistantship

She experiments with a protein known as Envoy. Envoy comes from the fungus Trichoderma reesei and regulates its secretion of cellulolytic enzymes. These enzymes help convert cellulose to glucose, an important step in the manufacture of bio-ethanol. And they have significant applications in biofuel production, specifically in the conversion of cellulosic biomass.

Cellulosic biomass comprises as much as 75 percent of all plant material, but current methods of converting this biomass into fuels are expensive and unwieldy. An efficient and low-cost conversion method could help turn materials ranging from plant waste to sawdust to switchgrass into clean and inexpensive energy sources.

“The Envoy protein is very useful in the conversion of biomass to biofuels.” Hopkins says. Properly used and understood, “it could have a very big impact on that industry,” she adds.

Hopkins has performed experiments to determine how Envoy dimerizes – how it forms bonds with other molecules. Currently, she is working on determining Envoy’s structure using X-ray crystallography.

The SRA program is an outgrowth of SMU’s Undergraduate Research Assistantship (URA) program, which provides funding for undergraduate students who want to pursue their research interests as part-time work. Students must submit a research proposal and receive faculty approval to participate, and they must write a summary of their experience at the project’s end. Support may be renewed for subsequent academic terms, with approval.

Hopkins learned about the SRA program from her research adviser, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Brian Zoltowski. She started working for him in the Spring 2012 term and plans to continue “for the next few years at least.”

SMU allows undergraduates to get a head start on their careers “in a way that’s not possible at larger universities,” Zoltowski says. “Hilary had the benefit of starting in my lab as a first-year student, whereas most universities don’t allow undergraduates to work in labs until they are juniors and seniors. The research environment at SMU allows students like Hilary to grow into an understanding of how research is conducted and to make a meaningful impact on important scientific studies.”

Read more about Dr. Zoltowski’s research

Zoltowski credits his own career advancement to similar opportunities he received as an undergraduate at the University of Southern Mississippi. He received his Ph.D. from Cornell in 2008. “I actually got to where I am today by being able to start as a researcher at a younger age at a smaller university,” he says. His adviser, John Pojman (now at LSU), “focused on teaching us how to think and do science from a laboratory perspective,” he says.

“I hope to provide similar insight and experiences for my students here with the unique support of SMU for undergraduate research.”

As for Hopkins, “it’s exciting to me – and really beneficial – to see how my studies apply directly to my lab work,” she says.

It also makes her mother and father proud, she adds. “My parents are so excited about this. But they do have a fun time trying to figure out what I do!”

As one of SMU’s Biomedical Researchers In Training Experience (BRITE) Scholars, Hopkins is considering applying to BRITE partner UT-Southwestern for her medical study. But wherever she goes for her graduate education, she plans to continue doing research, she says.

“It is important to me, and I want it to be a big part of my life and work going forward.”

About Kathleen Tibbetts

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