From the beginning at Colby, Megan Michie ’15 knew she wanted to go to medical school. But after taking organic chemistry, her focus shifted slightly: She began to think about pursuing an M.D.-Ph.D. degree instead, to become a medical scientist. She wanted more research experience to be sure. So, after graduating, she went to work with Martin Schnermann ’02 at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Frederick, Md.
To date, Schnermann has brought four Colbians into his lab, where he develops new molecules for cancer drug delivery and imaging. Currently, Carol Lipshultz ’20 is spending two years there as a chemical biology research trainee.
For Michie, the experience at NCI solidified that she wanted to do research. “Being able to focus on a project and see that completion of making this new material and testing it in biological applications was really exciting,” she said. In 2017 she embarked on an M.D.-Ph.D. program at Washington University in St. Louis.
Fluorescent signposts for the body
Schnermann and colleagues design small molecules to “spy” on processes in living organisms, as he puts it. His specific focus is fluorescent molecules, or fluorophores, that can literally light the way for treatment by illuminating the margin of a tumor for surgery, for example, or activating the release of a drug at a specific location in the body. The work is particularly of interest for head and neck cancers, Schnermann said, as well as ovarian and bladder cancers.
The students who come through his lab, including Jamie Shaum ’13 and Gabriel Kline ’19, are typically post-baccalaureates who want to work in a research lab before heading to graduate school. (Shaum is now a postdoctoral research fellow at Scripps Research in San Diego; Kline is also at Scripps, working on his Ph.D.)
“A strength of Colby students is their interdisciplinary, broad scientific training,” Schnermann said. “In my lab, we do chemistry, but then we also try to apply it. So it’s great to have people who are really excited about—and willing to work across—different fields.”
With direction from Schnermann, Michie created some of the brightest fluorophores the lab has been able to produce. The problem involved cyanine fluorophores, which tend to lose energy as they rotate. Michie designed a more rigid structure for the molecule, which blocked its rotation and helped retain energy, resulting in a brighter particle. In 2020 the Journal of the American Chemical Society published their paper about the work.
“Reasonably early on, she developed a really complex synthetic strategy—like, a molecule that we didn’t even know we could ever make,” Schnermann said of Michie.
A two-decade Colby connection
Schnermann has an inside line at Colby for strong post-bacc candidates: His former professor, Das Thamattoor, the J. Warren Merrill Professor in Chemistry and Natural History.
Schnermann had been broadly interested in science and German in his first years at Colby, and he didn’t take organic chemistry until his junior year—later than many students typically do. He switched his major to chemistry because of that class with Thamattoor.
“Das had a big influence on me, and I was really fortunate to get to work in his lab,” Schnermann said. “The focus on organic chemistry really came about because of him.”
Thamattoor remembers that Schnermann made up for lost time in chemistry and put in extra hours to deliver a “first-rate” honors thesis. Schnermann went on to get his Ph.D. in chemistry at Scripps and was a postdoctoral researcher at University of California Irvine before coming to NCI in 2008.
“What I remember most about him is that, even though he was a senior undergraduate, my conversations with him were like talking to a colleague, almost,” Thamattoor said.
He and Schnermann have remained close, visiting with each others’ families regularly and, from time to time, collaborating to support a new generation of researchers. When Michie was thinking about how to get more research experience, she asked Thamattoor for advice, and he connected her with Schnermann.
The coronavirus pandemic delayed Lipshultz’s start at NCI last summer, but she took the time to review literature and discuss potential projects with Schnermann and postdoctoral researchers in his lab. She is now working on antibody drug conjugates, which are specific proteins that can “unlock” cancer cells, letting in medicine that will kill them.
Lipshultz, who was also a student of Thamattoor’s, said she wanted to build on the lab experience she got at Colby and expand it. The position at NCI has provided that for her.
“I definitely got a lot more biology experience working here with cancer cells and also being able to see in real time how the chemicals that I make affect them,” she said. Schnermann, she added, is very good at guiding a project but giving researchers space to come up with their own ideas.
In addition to the interdisciplinary experience students get at Colby, Schnermann noted, they also bring a collaborative spirit that lends itself to working in a lab that spans not only chemistry and biology but the clinical practices of imaging and surgery. That breadth requires being able to speak the language across different fields, which in turn calls for a willingness to leave your own comfort zone.
“Science isn’t just sitting alone in a lab. It’s about building teams and working with other folks from different fields,” Schnermann said. “I’ve found the Colby students I’ve had have been really good at that.”
Michie noted that in both Thamattoor’s and Schnermann’s lab, she got to work on her own research projects—and that set her up for success when she got to Washington University.
“I really hadn’t realized how huge of an advantage it was until I got to graduate school and many of my peers were doing independent research for the first time,” she said. “It was super empowering to have that at such an early point in time, and it really convinced me that yes, I can do an M.D.-Ph.D. and follow on this path toward an independent scientific career.”