Jennifer Urban: Chemistry Graduate Student

Jennifer Urban is a PhD Candidate at the University of Rochester in Rochester, NY, USA. She is in the department of chemistry and works between two groups, combining work in physical and biological chemistry.

What do you do?

I am studying Alzheimer's disease by creating fluorescent mimics of the toxic form of Amyloid Beta, the protein that forms plaques in the brains of people with Alzheimer's. I treat neurons from rats with these mimics, take movies of the cells at high frame rates, and then run analysis programs in order to localize the mimics down to the single molecule level. The hope is to learn more about what makes this form of Amyloid Beta so toxic.

As a graduate student, I also play a role in maintaining and repairing various instruments in our lab. Have to keep things running!

Why is that important?

With my work, I hope to increase our knowledge about the progression of Alzheimer's disease. This in turn leads to the possibility of discovering ways to diagnose and treat the disease early on, neither of which are currently possible.

What’s the best part of being in STEM?

Well, it's pretty cool to work with lasers on a daily basis. That's not something everyone gets to do! Plus mine are pretty colors- purple (405 nm) and blue (488 nm). 

I think the most excited I have felt while running an experiment was when I was looking for calcium ion influx into neurons and astrocytes (also brain cells) in response to some of my materials. I was able to view this phenomenon with a fluorophore inside the cells that would drastically brighten when calcium entered.

As I was taking movies, you could see what looked like a lightning storm in my cell culture! You could see the brightness traveling from one cell to the next. It's something that many biologists study all the time, but for me it was a super exciting thing to witness.

What's your favorite STEM based fact? 

blue laser light microscope set up

Cats purr at a frequency that is known to promote healing and improve density of bone, so some scientists and veterinarians believe that this is why cats have been known to purr when injured or scared, not just when happy. I don't think there's anything concrete about cats' purrs actually helping humans heal, but it's a neat fact that it could be a possibility!

Thanks for your contributions to developing a cure for Alzheimer’s! If you’d like to nominate a STEM friend (or yourself), fill out the AweSTEM people form. You’ll also receive jewelry from Circuit Breaker Labs.