Anthony Pensa (’15) is a senior majoring in ISP and biological sciences and minoring in chemistry. He has worked at Professor Silverman’s lab for 2.5 years, since September 2012. His first encounter with Professor Silverman was during the spring of freshman year, through taking organic chemistry.
“I really liked the material Professor Silverman presented in his class and when I looked up his research, I found that it was relevant to my interests. I enjoyed chemistry and biology, and so I wanted to find something relevant to both of those and with a medical focus. What drew me to Professor Silverman’s research was that I could use my knowledge of chemistry and biology put it together into relevant application.” Like Silverman, Pensa’s interest stemmed partly from personal experience with neurogenerative disease, in this case, Parkinson’s.
Pensa has worked on two projects during his time at Silverman’s lab. “During my first year and a half,” he said. “I was designing and making inhibitors of a particular enzyme with overall purpose of finding treatment for Huntington’s. I collaborated with a lab based at Harvard, which did the biological testing. The purpose is to target a particular protein to alleviate the toxicity of Huntington’s protein.”
His second project involves targeting a different specific enzyme. “Animal models have shown that inhibiting this enzyme can produce results that may be useful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and neuropathic pain,” Pensa said. “I do the design, synthesis, and biological testing—including enzyme purification and kinetic studies with my inhibitors and the natural substrate of the enzyme we are targeting. We collaborate with UC Irvine that does x-ray crystallography in order to elucidate how the inhibitor gives rise to potency that we’re seeing.”
“The lab environment is great. Each undergraduate is paired with a postdoctoral fellow, and if I have any questions or want to talk through an idea, there is always someone who is willing to give their advice and support. Right now, I work closely with my post doc, but I design and make compounds based on my own thinking.”
There are two important qualities to a good researcher, according to Pensa. “You have to be excited about your work,” he said, “because there are going to be times when you will hit walls and feel frustrated. It’s also important to be determined. If you feel frustrated, it’s important to be open to feedback and seek advice or the opinion of others.”
“Professor Silverman is really great because he’s always there to give advice or feedback whenever we’re stuck,” Pensa said. “He gives us the freedom to explore and create something of our own—to address an issue that is important. Obviously, he’s made significant scientific progress by discovering Lyrica, but he has also helped a lot of people by mentoring students such as undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows—so that they may use the tools they gained from this lab experience and apply it in their futures.”
Pensa shares similar views with Silverman on the challenges of research. “It can be frustrating when even after you learn all these lab techniques and all the information from your classes and readings, somehow your experiments don’t work, or you get results that you’re not sure how to interpret. You may begin to doubt whether you’re thinking or doing things the right way.”
In such situations, Pensa stresses the importance of keeping an open mind and the ability to outside the box. “I find that when you come across a roadblock, it’s helpful to take a step back and see how to approach differently. The postdoctoral fellows are great resources because they’ve often encountered similar problems and can offer a different perspective. I also try to read as much literature as possible to think of a different approach.”
The learning curve is another challenge, according to Pensa. “When I first started at the lab, it was difficult because I’d never done research before,” he said. “I had classroom knowledge, but to take what you learn from the classroom and take it to the next level is hard transition. At first I relied heavily on postdoctoral fellows to get acclimated to performing experiments and learn how to apply the scientific method in this particular scientific setting.”
Pensa is currently writing an honors thesis for ISP and will begin his first year at the Feinberg School of Medicine this fall of 2015. “Research will continue be a part of what I want to do in whatever field I end up in,” he said. “It challenges you to think critically and do your own outside exploration. It’s the opportunity to take the information you learn in a classroom and see how it applies to real life problems. It allows you to pursue what you’re interested in—to take an idea and make it into a reality.”