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Bioengineering Student Publishes in Prestigious Journal

Providing opportunities for undergraduate student research is a hallmark of Santa Clara's engineering program, and recently the success of these efforts was illustrated when bioengineering senior Jeffrey Kunkel and Assistant Professor Prashanth Asuri had their paper, "Function, structure, and stability of enzymes confined in agarose gels," accepted for publication in PLoS One—one of the top five multidisciplinary journals in the United States. "When I presented the paper at a national conference, one of the audience members remarked that we must have outstanding students to generate this level of work," said Asuri, who agrees wholeheartedly with his colleague's observation.

Dr. Asuri and Jeffrey Kunkel discuss their research
Dr. Asuri and Jeffrey Kunkel discuss their research
Photo: Charles Barry, University Photographer

Since the end of his sophomore year, Kunkel has been working in Asuri's Biomaterials Engineering Laboratory. During his first summer with the lab, Kunkel worked 30 to 40 hours per week on data collection and analysis, and he assisted with the development of an in vitro system to better understand in vivo protein behaviors. "Inside the body, proteins exist in a crowded environment, but experiments on the bench are performed in dilute buffer solutions, which don't capture the complexity of the human environment," said Asuri. The pair's work more closely simulates the true environment by confining proteins into pores of a nanoporous hydrogel and observing their functions with the goal of advancing the use of proteins for drug delivery or as biosensors. "While the work we did is not the first of its kind, the methodology and information we can tease out of our system is novel," said Asuri. "And Jeff has already presented a conference paper on his findings at the AIChE Annual Meeting (American Institute of Chemical Engineers)."

"I really enjoy being in the lab and running experiments, being independent," said Kunkel, who is enrolled in the five-year, combined B.S./M.S. bioengineering degree program. "The lab environment is friendly, and we all get along well. Although we're working on separate projects, we learn a lot from each other." Each summer the lab holds a research seminar where students present their work to their peers, updating them all on their progress. "Last summer, Jeff trained a rising junior to come on to the project," said Asuri, "thus ensuring the longevity of the project."