Thi Thanh My Nguyen is ESR 9, works at Maynooth University, Ireland. Her PhD subject is “experimental phase diagrams to optimise membrane protein crystallization”.
Please tell us about yourself:
I come from a small fishing village in Vietnam and grew up near the North Sea in Germany. Living close to the sea my whole life, I enjoy being at the coast in any kind of weather.
I did my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Industrial Biology at the Bremen University of Applied Sciences, where I had the opportunity to test the water in different research institutions such as the “Kidscan Children’s Cancer Research UK” in Salford and the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf. Learning about research from different perspectives I recognised that I had a broad interest in science, that important problems can be solved with interdisciplinary research.
However, I wanted to research a topic in more detail, which led me to my current position in the RAMP network.
Why are you interested in science?
The reason that I am interested in science has evolved as I have become a little older. I have always been curious about the world around me, but I’ve realised that to understand things fully, I needed to specialise. I’m driven by curiosity, and I like that everyone, regardless of background can contribute to research and developing a better understanding of the world around us. As a researcher, you learn lots of skills that apply well beyond the lab. So, these skills are transferrable to other aspects of life, which I really like. I’m enjoying my current project and learning more about something in more detail.
Please tell us about your PhD project:
Membrane proteins play a major role in several biological processes in the cell. They can be found on the cell surface, either anchored or integrated into the cell membrane, which is composed of a double layer of molecules called phospholipids. Membrane proteins participate in many important cellular processes, but some act as porins or small openings or pores in the cell membrane that allow the transport of specific chemicals between the inside and the outside of the cell.
Understanding how a membrane protein works often involves determining its structure. This is usually done using a technique called X-ray crystallography. However, high quality protein crystals are required, and these are not easy to grow. As a result, we only know the structures for a relatively small number of membrane proteins.
The aim of the RAMP network is to Rationalize Membrane Protein Crystallization, which, if successful, will make it easier to crystallize membrane proteins. Until now, the best conditions to crystallize a protein have usually been determined by creating a very large number of potential solutions and waiting to see which ones form a crystal. This approach is called screening. Sometimes, many thousands of solutions may need to be screened before a good quality protein crystal is obtained – if at all.
My part in the project is to work towards better strategies to enable logical/rational approaches to membrane protein crystallization. Working as part of the Soft Matter group at Maynooth University, I will be measuring equilibrium phase diagrams for membrane proteins. Phase diagrams are maps of how a protein behaves for a particular set of solution conditions and have been useful in optimising crystallization conditions for many globular proteins. However, the approach is less widely applied to membrane proteins, and a number of challenges need to be overcome to do so – like finding equilibrium! However, if we overcome these challenges, we may open up new routes to more successful membrane protein crystallization or improve the quality of the crystals that can be formed.
What do you or did you enjoy most until now in your position within RAMP network? Why?
On the personal level: The most enjoyable part of the network has been the teamwork at the very start and understanding that we each have a role to play in the overall project. The individual results we obtain will contribute to the work of other members of the network. This teaches us to be responsible for ourselves but at the same time to have trust in the team.
To grow up with two different cultures has given me a great benefit, being able to expand my experience further in the RAMP network with getting to know so many more personalities with different cultural backgrounds and develop my scientific knowledge is a huge gift.
On the scientific level: I enjoy being part of this great network, aiming to learn and understand an essential question in biology. The RAMP network will not only enable us to face the problems of membrane protein crystallization but also provides us with supervision and the right tools needed to find a solution to this important problem.