Madison Fox may be trying to break one of the strongest chemical bonds in existence, but she’s not fazed by the challenge. Instead, she’s excited to be part of an Undergraduate Research Academy project that could help millions of people around the world.
Fox, a senior biochemistry major and competitive figure skater, is conducting a yearlong research project with James Kovacs, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Together, Fox and Kovacs are working to produce an enzyme that breaks down perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs: toxic, man-made chemicals that can be found in drinking water in urban centers, including Colorado Springs.
The work is so important to human health that it’s also being undertaken by scientists around the globe — and Fox finds it exciting to be part of such a global endeavor.
“The novelty of this project is absolutely incredible, as current research is still trying to determine a way to remediate PFCs from around the world,” Fox said. “I feel honored that I am working to create something brand-new to fix a problem that has not yet been fixed even by the world’s leading scientists in the field.”
“We are literally pioneers in the field with this project,” Fox added, “and learning from Dr. Kovacs and studying under him has been the best part of my entire college experience.”
Fox answered eight questions about her research, her partnership with Kovacs and her best advice for students interested in future research opportunities.
1. What was your path to UCCS and working with your faculty mentor?
I am incredibly fortunate to say that my path to UCCS was straightforward and exciting. As both a competitive figure skater at the Olympic Training Site and someone who was passionately seeking a degree in biochemistry, I chose UCCS because it offered me the most opportunity in both of my pursuits.
I am extremely grateful to learn from Dr. Kovacs as working in his lab and performing research that isn’t typically available to most undergraduate students has given me incredible opportunities for my future as a UCCS biochemistry alum. I discovered Dr. Kovacs and studied his work long before I approached him about potentially joining his lab. When I was offered the EPIC research grant back in the spring of 2019, and the chance for him to become my mentor, I remember being so excited I could not wait to start on my unique and novel project.
2. If you were describing your research/creative work to someone outside of your field, what would you say?
My research is fascinating: it blends art and science to create a novel, innovative, and potentially life-saving protein that could help people globally. Unfortunately, we have these very toxic, dangerous, man-made chemicals called Perfluorinated Compounds, or PFCs, that have been found in drinking water in the Southern Colorado Springs metro area, as well as anywhere there are manufacturing and processing facilities, airports, and military installations.
My job is to use bioengineering techniques and my knowledge in biochemistry to synthesize, test, and produce an enzyme called a Haloalkane dehalogenase. This enzyme bioremediates PFCs so that they can be degraded into harmless molecules that are not dangerous to nature. The gambit here is that I am also trying to break one of the strongest chemical bonds to exist in chemistry, but that is also why this project is so incredibly important to both science and those affected by PFCs.
3. Which concept or discovery from your research/creative work most excites, invigorates or inspires you?
The novelty of this project is absolutely incredible as current research is still trying to determine a way to remediate PFCs from around the world. To be part of this global endeavor is exciting, and I feel honored that I am able to create something brand new to fix a problem that has not yet been fixed even by the world’s leading scientists in the field. The discovery and techniques used that are required to perform the research I am performing is invigorating and keeps me motivated in that Dr. Kovacs and I might be the ones to solve this problem that negatively affects so many people.
4. Describe how and why this research/creative work was started.
This research is part of the Environmental PFC Impact Collaboration led by Dr. Janel Owens.
5. What has the experience of working with your faculty mentor and fellow researchers been like?
Working under Dr. Kovacs has been an incredible experience, and learning from someone as smart as he is has taught me not only biochemistry lab techniques and bioengineering skills, but a new way of thinking, asking questions, and how I can go about answering these questions. I have been so fortunate to work with UCCS alumni Cody Stein and Brianna Vigil, both Kovacs Lab graduates, as well as Yulia Shtanko and current UCCS graduate students Michael Wheeler and Bailee Troutman. All of these people have been an integral part in motivating me, helping me succeed, and inspiring me to not only become a better researcher, but a better person, labmate, and future physician.
6. How has this work helped prepare you for your future in graduate school or your career?
My ultimate goal is to earn an MD/Ph.D. which will continue to fuel my passion for research in a clinical environment, as well as improve the current state of human health.
My work in Dr. Kovacs’ lab bioengineering the haloalkane dehalogenase has prepared me by giving me the opportunity to investigate a problem that directly affects both human health and the environment from a biochemical perspective. I have learned how to go about a problem that seems unsolvable, and attempt to solve it in an effective, well-thought-out way, which is important when you want to become a physician-scientist. I have been able to practice and perform techniques that are not normally taught at the undergraduate level, such as the aforementioned bioengineering and protein synthesis. These are skill sets I will carry with me after graduation, as I plan on studying protein folding as a Ph.D. student and ultimately apply my work in the clinical field as a physician.
7. What has been the most memorable part of working on this project with your faculty mentor?
I would say the most memorable part of working on my project with Dr. Kovacs is the day-to-day problem-solving. With a project as novel and unique as ours, we have been able to dig deep into the current literature and try new methods each day. We are literally pioneers in the field with this project, and learning from Dr. Kovacs and studying under him has been the best part of my entire college experience.
8. What advice would you give first-year students who are interested in working with a faculty mentor?
My best advice is to do what a lot of current researchers did, including myself: have a conversation with a mentor that you’re interested in and see if any of their projects speak to you. Finding something you’re good at is the easy part…but to do something for the foreseeable future and still be passionate is rare. Whether you want to go into biochemical research or mathematics or something completely different, don’t ever be afraid of failure. As I’ve been told many times, you can’t ignore the “re” in research.
The Undergraduate Research Academy encourages UCCS students to expand their education beyond the classroom through participation in research and creative projects while engaging in mentorship with UCCS faculty. The yearlong collaborative research projects further students’ professional and academic development while furthering faculty members’ research program goals.
UCCS celebrates this year’s cohort of Undergraduate Research Academy student and faculty researchers. All those interested in participating should visit the Undergraduate Research Academy website for more information.