By Neil Nachbar
Lauren Hubert has lofty goals. The University of Rhode Island junior would like to earn a doctorate in chemical engineering, conduct research in immunoengineering, and pursue a career in biopharmaceuticals.
The chemical engineering major from South Kingstown took a giant step toward those goals when she participated in the 10-week Research Experience for Undergraduates hosted by the Vanderbilt Institute for Nanoscale Science and Engineering last summer.
“I was working in Professor Dan Roxbury’s lab last fall when I started looking into research opportunities for the summer before my junior year,” said Hubert. “I discovered a program at Vanderbilt University that places students in labs that best fit their interests and goals.”
The objective of the project Hubert worked on was to design molecularly engineered materials that can control the immune system in a manner in which they could cure, treat, or prevent diseases such as cancer.
“My project was at the intersection of polymer/nanoparticle science and protein engineering,” said Hubert. “Through polymer engineering, we aimed to create a polymer-based nanoparticle–a polymersome–that could encapsulate and carry a therapeutic/drug. We did this by first using polymerization to create the intended diblock copolymer (structure), and then turned this polymer into a nanoparticle using a method called flash nanoprecipitation.”
Hubert learned that a polymersome has no inherent way to get to its intended destination (i.e. a cancerous tissue) on its own and there’s no way to track where it’s going and accumulating in the body.
“This is where the protein engineering side came into play,” said Hubert. “I synthesized a fusion protein consisting of a fluorescent component, the part that would be used to visualize the polymersome, and an antibody fragment, the part that would lead the polymersome to a specific cell in need of the therapeutic the polymersome was carrying. To combine the protein and the polymersome, we made use of ‘click-chemistry,’ which links them via a spontaneous reaction resulting from how we synthesized the polymersome and the protein.”
At the end of the summer, Hubert and the other students in the program presented their research on posters. Titled, “Synthesis of Tunable Protein-Polymersome Conjugates for Enhanced Targeting of Cancerous Tissues,” Hubert’s poster won first place.
The prize for having the best poster was a $1,000 travel grant to attend the American Institute of Chemical Engineers National Conference in Phoenix in November, where Hubert once again captured first place for her research presentation.
While both honors were well-deserved and appreciated by Hubert, the experience she gained, which she’ll use to propel her forward in her career, was most meaningful.
“I gained so much confidence in my lab skills, analytical techniques, and ability to communicate my findings effectively,” said Hubert.
Hubert is no stranger to academic success or the rewards that can result from hard work. After her application to URI was reviewed, she was offered the prestigious Thomas M. Ryan Scholarship, which provides a full scholarship for four years, including tuition, fees, housing, dining, books, and one Global Winter Travel J Term experience with faculty.
“The Ryan scholarship has meant everything to me,” said Hubert. “I’m grateful to Mr. Ryan, Vice Provost Dean Libutti, and everyone involved for providing me with all of the resources I could ever want or need. I have formed lasting friendships with the other Ryan scholars and the professional connections I’ve made due to this scholarship have given me the confidence to pursue research and other academic opportunities. As a Ryan scholar, I have the foundation to succeed at the undergraduate–and eventually graduate–levels.”