UW-W professor, student, alumni publish work in journal Science

By Kimberly Wethal

Jan. 27, 2016


You have to feel just a “little bit stupid” in order to get published in a journal Science alongside some of the world’s smartest researchers and scientists.

That’s how senior biology major Larry Williams felt during his summer undergraduate research program three years ago. As his mentor, chemistry associate professor Christopher Veldkamp kept handing him articles and information he said he didn’t understand.

The stupidity he felt, and the perseverance to challenge himself and overcome it, however, paid off late last year. The results found by Williams, Veldkamp and alumni Andrew Phillips and Gary Chaffee during the program were published in the journal Science online in early December, and was put into printed form earlier this month.

“I had to fight feelings when I couldn’t understand it,” Williams said. “When I didn’t know how to do this or that, I just kept trying. It was a daily process. This project was new to me, and [Veldkamp] had already started [the research] and working through it.”

With Science having a 7 percent acceptance rate and close to 1 million readers as one of the most prominent peer-reviewed journals in the world, the opportunity to be published in it is an “accomplishment,” Veldkamp said.

The submitted work involved research on how the immune system utilizes a certain type of chemokine protein, called CCL21, to recruit other types of cells to the body’s lymph nodes. It was the task of Veldkamp and his UW-Whitewater students to analyze the proteins, its variants and its mutants using a protein nuclear magnetic response (NMR) test.

The researchers discovered the chemokine proteins could both help and hinder a person’s recovery from illness, depending on the types of cells they were recruiting to the body’s lymph nodes.

“There’s instances where you want that to happen, when you’re detecting and fighting off disease, and instances where you don’t want CCL21 recruiting cells to the lymph nodes, like when you have cancer cells,” Veldkamp said.

Despite the research starting years prior, it took until the second week of January for Veldkamp to finally be able to pull his and the student’s efforts off his bookshelf in his Upham Hall office.

It’s “kind of surreal” to look at it in print, Veldkamp says as the journal lays open to the first page of their writing on his desk.

The UW-W team didn’t do it alone – with the help of Professor Michael Sixt at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, and his group of researchers, they each tackled a different aspect of the research, with Sixt working with the biology side of it, and Veldkamp’s group taking interest with the chemistry and structure of the protein.

The use of email made coordination of the the cross-continental collaboration go smoothly, Veldkamp said. The findings of the research meshed just as seamlessly, as the teams came up with matching conclusions.

“We were starting at opposite ends and meeting in the middle,” Veldkamp said. “That gave a really broad picture of how CCL21 works, and that’s why a journal like ‘Science’ was excited enough about it to publish it.”

Three years in the making

Williams, a McNair scholar, needed a mentor for the program during his freshmen year. He went around Upham Hall in search of a professor who had room in their lab for him to conduct his undergraduate research that following summer.

“When I got started, that was my first research opportunity,” Williams said. “Thank goodness I ran into Dr. Veldkamp.”

The collaboration between the two groups of researchers actually started with Veldkamp’s Ph.D advisor Brian Volkman, who had seen Sixt speak at a conference about his data and lab results and knew the two needed to join forces.

“Science is really collaborative,” Veldkamp said. “He knew after hearing that talk that we had really synergistic research endeavors.”

Williams and his two other peers dedicated much of their summer to the research, and Veldkamp’s hobby became his full-time job. During the fall and spring semesters, he only has time for 10-15 hours of research a week because his first priority remains his students.

There was momentous amount of work to be completed after coming to their conclusion – for the next couple of years, Veldkamp and Sixt, along with their researchers, had to write up their sections of the paper, only to be at the mercy of their peer-reviewers, who would send it back and ask for more.

While it’s not more than six pages when in print, the challenge came from making the writing and figures on the page as clear, concise and interesting as possible, Veldkamp said. Sixt is considered the corresponding author of the paper, so he dealt more with the editors and collaborators of the journal than the UW-W side.

“It takes a while to write it up, and it’s quite the process to submit the paper to the journal, to wait for others scientists to review it and make suggested changes for additional experiments,” Veldkamp said.

As the years have passed and the researchers have all moved on to new and different projects, Veldkamp recognizes how rare it is for a researcher to get published in Science.

“The three undergrads that are on the paper, to some extent, I don’t think they even really understand what an accomplishment it is,” Veldkamp said. “It’s a goal of any researcher to be published in a journal like Science … your average researcher might never get published, or they might only get published there once.

“For most people, it’s a once in a lifetime accomplishment … it’s like catching the biggest fish you’ve ever caught.”

For Williams, it’s a “great honor” that made him feel like a celebrity for just a moment.

Phillips was happy to see his name published in print earlier this month, but he was more excited for his mentor Veldkamp, who has served as his mentor during his college career.

“I am so happy for Dr. Veldkamp, because he is so deserving,” Phillips said in an email to the Royal Purple. “He genuinely wants his students to see success. By involving us in his groundbreaking research, he not only gave us this great opportunity to be published authors, but has shown us what quality science looks like.”

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