Aaron Benjamin

fifth-year grad student

Biochemistry

Haddonfield, New Jersey

What do you research?

We do a combination of synthetic chemistry and X-ray crystallography to look at a variety of different enzymes. Mine specifically is targeting secondary metabolism and acyl transfer.

What real-world problem could this solve?

So there are two parts: A lot of natural products are involved in drug development, so like 30% of all drugs that have come out are essentially natural products. Essentially, bacteria or plants or something make it for us, right?

Of the remaining however many percentages, almost all of them come from some sort of scaffold from natural products, so being able to engineer pathways that can actually create antibiotics and different antibiotics — that’s one aspect of it. The second aspect is kind of a better understanding of how our metabolism works, (as) secondary metabolism is not understood very well.

Why’d you choose this research?

I’ve always wanted to do crystallography, and I never had the chance to.

Being able to get a chance to actually see the model and see exactly what that protein looks like is really, really cool. As somebody who’s a visual learner, it actually was even more advantageous for me. Plus, I’m also very interested in pathogens and infectious diseases — being able to come up with cures for those.

What about your research would people not immediately know?

Most labs will do one set of types of experiments, so a little bit of synthesis and maybe a little bit of biophysical stuff, or they’ll do the structure, crystallography, but they’ll collaborate with someone else. We do everything ourselves. We synthesize all the molecules we have. We use X-ray crystallography and cocrystallization to solve our surface with those molecules. Then we also do the entomology and biophysics.

What do you like and dislike about your research?

I enjoy mentoring and getting the opportunity to teach students how to do something that they might not have learned how to do in class.

I also really enjoy the thrill of learning something new or finding something unexpected. I just like science a lot.

In terms of dislikes, I don’t like how small our lab is, but I think that’s a symptom of biochemistry being a relatively small program, but there’s not really anything I dislike besides that.

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