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Kiara Thompson with her research poster at the NOBCChE conference in September.

Research Profile: Protein Design for New Medical Therapies

October 14, 2022

Kiara Thompson (UNC’ 23, CSS 7) is a biochemistry and biology double-major from Tallahassee, FL. She currently studies protein design in hopes of creating more efficacious cancer treatments in the future. This semester, she plans to share her research findings at three national conferences, helping her gain valuable science communication skills and network with other scientists in her field.

Where do you conduct your research?

I conduct research in the Kuhlman lab under Dr. Brian Kuhlman in UNC’s Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

What research questions does your lab study?

The lab is focused on protein design, specifically the creation of novel protein-protein interactions, protein structures, and light-activatable protein switches. We focus on the usage of the Rosetta program for protein modeling.

Please tell us a little about your specific research project.

My current research project focuses on a transmembrane cellular protein called CD20. It is a common and efficient target for B cell-generated malignancies such as leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The insolubility of this protein and its complex binding structure make it difficult to study.

My project focuses on expressing a de novo CD20 antigen that we designed using Rosetta and trying to understand its binding mechanism with various antibody Fabs. Our de novo antigen retains the native CD20 binding features while increasing its solubility and stability which will make it more compatible for use in antibody development. A greater understanding of CD20 will allow for the creation of more efficacious cancer therapies in the future.

How has this experience shaped your future goals?

My experience in the Kuhlman lab has been instrumental in shaping my future goals! I always intended to go to graduate school but was never sure about my intended area of focus–-until now. This research combines all of my interests into one interdisciplinary project and has opened my eyes to what my experience as a graduate student might look like. I have also enjoyed learning a variety of new techniques that I know will be applicable throughout my entire career.

This research experience has also been unparalleled in terms of the mentorship that I have received. I have learned so much about graduate school and being a scientist, as well as how to balance work and life. It has really emphasized to me the importance of mentorship and solidified that I want to give back and be a mentor for other students in the future.

What has been the most fun or interesting part of your research?

The most fun part of my research is watching the project progress over time. I love when we continue making small discoveries that push the entire project forward. One funny memory is about a specific antibody that we were looking to express. My mentor had not been able to express it; she told me to try, and I was able to get the expression on the first try! Trying different methods and strategies to see how things work–experimentation–is my favorite part of science. I love doing research because it has the ability to help people, and the knowledge that I am helping to create can be applied in the future.

What was it like presenting your research at a national conference?
Recently, I was able to present my research at the NOBCChE (National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers) conference in Orlando, FL. Presenting was an incredible experience, but I also enjoyed meeting so many interesting and inspiring individuals doing research in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and reconnecting with CSS alum Kristen Gardner! In addition, having the opportunity to see other presentations really opened my eyes up to potential ways of approaching my own research, and ways that I can connect my interest in Biology and Immunology to Chemistry.

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