Hamline News

Biochemistry Summer Research Notes: Ashley Robinson and Professor Betsy Martinez-Vaz


In early March, Hamline senior Ashley Robinson was inducted into the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Honor Society (Chi Omega Lambda). She followed that well-deserved accomplishment with a summer of research with Hamline Professor Betsy Martinez-Vaz. Recently, Robinson took a few minutes to share what has been happening in the biochemistry lab.

What is the title of your project?

Microbial Degradation of Metformin (Glucophage)

How would you explain your project to someone who knows nothing about it?

Generally speaking, I am studying microbes in our environment that can take things that we consider to be pollutants and use them as a source of energy for growth (In other words, food!). I am learning about these bacteria, as well as about how we might make our planet a cleaner and safer place by using them to consume environmental pollutants.

This project specifically focuses on Metformin because it is the most prescribed type 2 diabetes medication in the United States and in many countries worldwide. This drug is not fully metabolized by humans and cannot be removed through conventional water treatment processes. Metformin has been detected in coastal waters around the world and is currently considered an emerging pollutant. Professor Martinez-Vaz’s research goal is to isolate bacteria that can degrade Metformin and figure the proteins involved in the metabolism of this drug. This research is part of that work.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your research methods?

Since the onset of COVID-19, my research methods have shifted to become more computer-based, more bioinformatics. There are various software programs we utilize to mine and analyze data. I have gained new skills as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as another way to approach research.

What is the biggest challenge of your project?

The biggest challenge of my current project is that what we are looking for is brand-new. The proteins or enzymes have yet to be discovered, so there isn’t a lot of literature to refer to. It is an interesting challenge, and quite fun, but it can be frustrating at times. It is rather like living a real-life mystery novel. I know what happened (the reaction); I know the victim (metformin, the compound of interest), I have the list of suspects (the enzymes), but the list is extensive (tens of thousands). I can eliminate many of the suspects, as they have great alibis (I know they do something else)… but… Who did it?

What has surprised you about the project?

What has surprised me about the project is all of the various approaches and techniques I have been able to use to try to answer the questions we are asking. It truly does make for a great story. I’ve been writing my departmental honors thesis over the summer, and it is really cool to look at.

How does the project fit with your academic or career goals?

My academic goals are to pursue a Ph.D., continuing to research and becoming more knowledgeable and skilled in my area of choice. Being a part of this project allows me to do what I love to do: Challenge myself, learn every day, be curious, and ask questions. I fail. I succeed. I troubleshoot and, at times I walk away and come back later. My philosophy in life is to pursue your passion and enjoy the journey. This project allows me to grow as a scientist and improve my critical thinking skills as well as my scientific communication skills. This is my second summer on this project which helped me discover my love for microbiology as well as biochemistry. Moreover, I think that this project has truly given me the confidence to pursue graduate school.

Written by Robinson and Martinez-Vaz. Lightly edited by staff.