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From Ballet to Biochemistry: BC Undergraduate's Research Published By Leading Science Journal

alexis peterson's thesis sheds light on cellular regulation

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. (July 2012)—A fresh insight into a decades-old question regarding cellular regulation has been provided by new College of Arts and Sciences alumna Alexis Peterson '12, and published in Biochemistry, a peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Chemical Society.

Alexis Peterson
Alexis Peterson

Peterson, a biochemistry major at BC, conducted the research for a Scholar of the College project under the direction of Chemistry Professor Evan Kantrowitz. She is lead author, with co-authors Kantrowitz and BC graduate student Gregory Cockrell, of a paper presenting the project's findings that was published in the June 19 issue of Biochemistry, and is slated to be featured on the journal's cover for July-September.

Her work centered on the enzyme aspartate transcarbamoylase, which is a main focus of the Kantrowitz laboratory and a textbook example of what is known as allosteric regulation, she said.

"My focus was on understanding how the regulatory molecule UTP, which is used in RNA synthesis, binds to and regulates the activity of the enzyme," she said. "There are many crystal structures of the enzyme, but there was not one with UTP. Using X-ray crystallography and structural analysis, we found that UTP binds to an allosteric site which differs from the previously known site."
"Alexis selected a very challenging objective, and a more difficult project than I would normally give most undergraduates," said Kantrowitz. "Her progress was spectacular. Her studies have led us to understand a complex pathway of cellular regulation which has been in question for more than 20 years."

Peterson's achievements are particularly noteworthy given that they have occurred following a relatively recent change in career trajectory. Homeschooled throughout high school due to an intense training schedule surrounding her passion for ballet, she danced in some 75 performances with the one of the nation's leading companies, Pacific Northwest Ballet, before transferring to BC for sophomore year from Indiana University, where she had been enrolled in online and correspondence courses from her residence in Seattle.

She had realized, she said, that while she enjoyed ballet, she didn't find it completely fulfilling as a vocation. "I wanted to pursue a career where I could make a larger difference in people's lives," she said.

Though she had had no previous college level math or science classes, Peterson's years of dance training helped to provide the discipline and work ethic required to get up to speed—and then some—in the demanding coursework of her new pre-med curriculum. She also learned UNIX and a number of complex computer programs in order to conduct the analysis in her senior project.

She credits Kantrowitz, Chemistry Professor David McFadden, Biology Adjunct Assistant Professor Danielle Taghian, and many other BC faculty members—as well as her experiences volunteering at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center emergency room and serving as mentor to a local third-grade student through BC's PULSE service-learning program—with influencing her academic and career choices.

A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Peterson is now working at a biomedical engineering laboratory at the University of Michigan and is applying to M.D./Ph.D. programs.

"I think that I can make the greatest contribution as a physician-researcher," she said.

Read the full article in the journal Biochemistry

—Patti Delaney is deputy director of the Office of News & Public Affairs;