Young Shelter Island scientist digs deep in research

JULIE LANE PHOTO Young scientist Emily Hyatt has grown protein crystals in the Shelter Island School laboratory and will participate in a seminar at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.
JULIE LANE PHOTO | Young scientist Emily Hyatt has grown protein crystals in the Shelter Island School laboratory and will participate in a seminar at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.

From the time Shelter Island High School senior Emily Hyatt was in elementary school, she was mesmerized by science. She might not have known the direction her career could take then, but now there’s no question.

Emily is focused on becoming a molecular biology researcher with a career at either Brookhaven National Laboratory or Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Upon graduation, she hopes to pursue her studies at SUNY Binghampton and eventually earn masters and doctorate degrees in her field.

Thanks to Shelter Island’s Intel program, which encourages talented science students to pursue their own projects under the guidance of teacher Dan Williams, Emily was able to grow protein crystals in the school laboratory.

Her scientific research into the crystals has shown her how different proteins function in the body and how they bind to cells. Doing further research on the crystals she’s created can lead to preventing or treating illnesses by affecting protein development.

Asked about some day practicing medicine her response was quick and succinct. “MD, no,” Emily said. “Ph.D., probably.”

She’s been working with protein modeling for the past three years and has experimented with mixtures from Hampton Research — a biochemical company that, despite its name, is located in California — which provides materials and instruction for crystal growths.

If it all sounds easy, it’s not. A 2009 description of growing crystals from proteins by researchers Beat Blattmann and Patrick Sticher at the University of Zurich described the process as “a tricky task because it is difficult to determine the right conditions under which each new protein will crystallize. Sometimes it even seems impossible.”

Many of Emily’s early experiments resulted in no reactions. But Mr. Williams has told his students that failure is generally part of the process necessary to reaching the point where an experiment succeeds.

Based on her early work the Center for Infectious Disease Research (CIDR), a nonprofit focusing on infectious disease research, sent Emily another protein to crystallize and she has succeeded in getting two crystals from that material.

The CIDR aim is to eventually cure HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other emerging infectious diseases.

Emily and others in the Intel program will be attending a symposium in May at New York City’s Weill Cornell Medical College to discuss their research and learn what other young scientists are working on.

Accompanying Ms. Hyatt will be Sarah Lewis, Francesca Frasco, Mia Clark, Luke Gilpin, Daniel McCafferty and Jack Lang. They are researching aquaporins, a class of molecules regualating the amount of water in body cells. They’re at the early stages of their research, but will work on various aquaporins found in specific diseases with the goal of understanding the structure of the molecules that can lead to cures. Francesca is also looking at mcompound that has a role in blood clots, still births, heart disease and behavioral issues such as depression.

Emily has applied to use the BNL facilities to study crystals with X-ray imaging and high resolution energy analysis. The equipment provides super bright X-rays at different angles.

Sometime in the future, Emily would like her experiment published in the online “Protein Data Bank” and used for 3D structural data of biological molecules.

What does this science wiz-kid do when she’s not in the lab?

“Not much,” she said, before rattling off a list of activities, including serving as co-captain of the cheerleading squad, president of the National Honor Society and school yearbook editor, not to mention playing volleyball in the fall and softball in the spring.