The University of Maryland’s first winner of the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship is Krzysztof Franaszek, a senior who juggles lab research that could lead to new virus-fighting strategies with volunteer work as an emergency medical technician for a local fire department.
This competitive international scholarship, which covers all costs for a year of post-graduate study at the University of Cambridge outside London, was established in 2001 by a $210 million donation from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This year scholarships were awarded to 39 U.S. seniors and recent graduates who combine academic excellence with a commitment to improving the lives of others.
Franaszek will graduate in May with degrees in biology and economics. He conducts research at the department of cell biology and molecular genetics, looking for hidden points of vulnerability in the ways some viruses, like HIV and SARS , encode the proteins that give them structure and potency. On weekends he is an emergency medical technician for the Branchville Volunteer Fire Department, which serves communities near the campus. Some of his patients are sick with the same viruses he seeks to understand and combat in the lab.
Combining science at the molecular level and hands-on care for patients helps the 20-year-old Olney, MD resident stay focused on his ultimate goal: “to make a humane contribution.”
“Intellectual pursuits are a goal in themselves,” he said. But “trying to make something to help other people, I guess that’s what drives me.”
Franaszek, who was born in Krakow, Poland, is the son of a physicist and a pharmacologist. The family came to the United States soon after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.
While still a student at Thomas S. Wooton High School in Rockville, MD, Franaszek worked in a laboratory at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology and took 17 advanced placement courses. After high school graduation in May 2010, he did summer work at the National Institutes of Health, and arrived at the University with nearly two-thirds the credits needed to graduate. He has worked in the molecular biology laboratory of Prof. Jonathan Dinman since his freshman year.
“He’s got wonderful biological insight,” said Dinman, Franaszek’s academic advisor. Just as a jazz musician intuitively knows where a musical improvisation is headed, Franaszek intuitively understands the behavior of tiny biological molecules, the professor said.
Dinman’s laboratory focuses on ribosomes, the molecular machines found within all living cells that link amino acids together to form proteins. Dinman’s team works with viruses and yeast because their simplicity makes it easy to spot peculiarities in their ribosomes, which follow the commands of messenger RNA (mRNA) to assemble proteins in a specific sequence so the cells can reproduce and function.
Scientists studying mRNA initially thought each mRNA only encodes one protein, but there are exceptions. Franaszek’s undergraduate research focuses on a phenomenon known as programmed ribosomal frameshifting, in which one mRNA can encode more than one protein.
“Imagine reading a sentence. You have spaces in order to know where one word ends and another begins. That tells you what frame you’re reading in,” explained Franaszek.
Just as a writer can change the meaning of a sentence by altering the spaces between words, some ribosomes can slip along the mRNA template that guides their protein synthesis, changing the proteins they synthesize. This doesn’t happen with all types of mRNA, but it can occur with mRNAs encoded by the HIV virus, the SARS coronavirus, and some mammalian genes, perhaps including those associated with liver cancer in humans.
Researchers hope their work will lead to drugs that interfere with frameshifting, disrupting the viruses’ ability to reproduce. In Dinman’s laboratory Franaszek studies the results of frameshifting experiments, looking for patterns that might show where the process is vulnerable to outside interference. At Cambridge, he’ll do hands-on work with viruses and human cells in the laboratory of virologist Dr. Ian Brierley.
An avid rower who trains three to four hours a day with fellow members of the University of Maryland Crew Team, Franaszek also plans to try out for one of Cambridge’s legendary rowing clubs.
Photo: John Consoli
Story: Heather Dewar