posted on August 7: Basic science captures graduate student’s imagination


The Ontario Graduate Scholarships (OGS) are awards that McMaster's graduate students compete for with students from across the province. For each scholarship, universities are required to provide one-third of the $15,000 award, with the government providing the rest. The following is a profile of an OGS recipient:

For Hendrik Nieuwland, a McMaster graduate student in biochemistry, his Ontario Graduate Scholarship award represents recognition of the importance of basic science. “It's nice to be recognized for doing good work, especially in basic science,” he says.

While clinical research often captures the public imagination, Nieuwland says people tend to forget that basic research makes the clinical work possible.

“You can't design the therapeutic research until the basic research is completed.”

For Nieuwland, the $15,000 award also means he won't have to take another part-time job to pay the bills. That will give him additional time to work in the lab and time to write articles on politics for a Hamilton arts magazine.

Nieuwland received his undergraduate degree in biochemistry from McMaster and is now working towards his master's degree. He admits to a fascination for “the molecular aspects of biological systems.”

To describe his graduate work, Nieuwland first begins by explaining that chemotherapy triggers cancer cells to undergo cell death. However there are some proteins that, when brought to a specific location inside a cell, prevent cell death.

Some human cancers contain high levels of these anti-death proteins, thus rendering chemotherapy ineffective. These anti-death proteins belong to a specific family of proteins called “tail-anchored proteins,” which are the focus of Nieuwland's research.

No one knows how these proteins arrive at their specific location within the cell. If researchers are able to discover the factors involved in taking these tail-anchored proteins to their specific cellular locations, this information could have profound implications for cancer research and therapy in the future.

Nieuwland is studying a tail-anchored protein named Sss1p. He is working to set up a genetic screen in yeast to identify the factors that target the Sss1p protein to a specific location in the cell called the endoplasmic reticulum, a site where some anti-death proteins function.

Yeast has many proteins that are also found in the human body. “If I can find a protein that targets Sss1p in yeast, then maybe I can find the protein in humans,” says Nieuwland.