Chemistry Professor Awarded Prestigious Grant

By Erin Matheson ‘18
Science Columnist

The W.M. Keck Science Department is home to both brilliant and dedicated students and staff.  One of those dedicated staff members, Dr. Aaron Leconte, was nationally recognized by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) by becoming a 2016 Cottrell Scholar this February. The designation comes with a $100,000 award for research and teaching.  Leconte is one of eight faculty member from undergraduate institutions to be awarded the prestigious award.

    Dr. Leconte is a professor of chemistry and has been studying bioluminescence and the specific protein, luciferase  Bioluminescence can be observed in jellyfish and fireflies, and once the luciferase is extracted, it can be used to track biological reactions. The grant supports both work in Leconte’s lab and supports incorporating research on luciferase into the Introduction to Biological Chemistry (IBC) classroom setting. While Leconte’s group is performing the protein engineering in his research lab, introductory chemistry students will be performing foundational biochemical experiments to better understand this versatile enzyme.

The grant will pay for both salaries and supplies for students in his lab.  There is also an educational component in this grant that helps me incorporate this research project into a classroom environment.  “I am hoping to create and implement an open-ended project-based series of labs for IBC that will test some of the hypotheses that are generated on this project,” said Leconte.  This will give about 50 first year students per year the opportunity to engage in a real, open-ended research project as part of IBC.  The grant also funds opportunities to bring speakers who work on luciferase, in Claremont and outside of Claremont, into the class to further connect the research that we do in the lab class to the bigger world of luciferase research.

“Bioluminescence is very useful, but it could definitely be improved to create even more sensitive, precise and reliable imaging techniques,” Leconte said in a Keck Science press release on February 26, 2016. “There are a long list of enzyme properties that scientists would love to be able to tweak, but proteins are incredibly complex machines. We are working hard to think creatively about how to best tune these proteins to the needs of the field”.

The award will grant first-year Claremont students the opportunity to participate in research and will fund interactions with other groups focusing on luciferase. Professor Leconte suggests students to focus on projects that students are passionate about, “It’s easier to immerse yourself in projects that you are really deeply excited by than projects that are a means to an end.  It’s also a much better way to live your life!”