As part of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, Virginia Tech sophomore and biochemistry major Taylan Tunckanat is characterizing enzymes to understand how methane-producing microorganisms are able to survive in environments with high concentrations of salt.

Tunckanat said that his biochemistry journey all started with an eccentric high school biology teacher: “I generally enjoyed most of the sciences in high school," he said. "But, I had a very passionate biology teacher and she really liked enzymes. That’s what led me to reach out to Dr. Allen, who is an expert in enzymology.”

Kylie Allen, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry in the College of Agriculture in Life Sciences, has a lab on the second floor of Fralin Hall. The Allen lab researches methane and methanogens, which are methane-producing microorganisms that have the ability to reduce carbon dioxide to methane.

With a focus on the production and consumption of methane in nature, the lab hopes to gain “a more complete and deeper understanding of methane metabolism [which] could allow for the development of alternative fuels and potential remedies for climate change,” said Allen.

Methanogens live in both ubiquitous and extreme environments. For example, they reside in our own guts, in addition to the well-renowned gastrointestinal tract of the cow. However, Tunckanat and Allen are looking at methanogens in extreme environments and how they can cope with different stressors, such as blistering heat, bitter cold, or, in this case, high salinity.

“I’m studying how they survive in high salt concentrations and how they cope in that environment. We know that there is an enzyme that produces a molecule, which they gather a lot of, to match the concentration of the solutes outside of the cell. This molecule doesn’t hinder them in any way and it doesn’t interfere with their own processes. So, we are trying to see how this enzyme does what it does,” said Tunckanat.

Before Tunckanat was accepted into the SURF program, he was a first-year student who wanted to make the most out of his summer. He was aching to do something, especially if it involved research. All it took was a quick google search and a trip to the Office of Undergraduate Research website and he found just what he needed – the SURF program.

The Fralin SURF program is a 10-week training program designed to give motivated Virginia Tech undergraduates the opportunity to engage in full time research and related professional development activities that mirror graduate training. Students that are selected to participate in this training program receive a $4,000 stipend.

Tunckanat wants other students to know that it’s never too early to start doing research.

“I was a freshman when I applied to SURF and I had no background in biochemistry whatsoever," he said. "You pick things up as you do research. Had I started after I took the biochemistry class, I would not have had as much time in my schedule, or as much time in general, to commit to this overall experience."

According to Allen, the SURF program is a great place for students to discover their scientific passions early. “What will help you decide where you want go and what will help you with your classes is to just get into the lab. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it and that’s fine. This way, you find out as early as possible.”

Tunckanat attributed one of his most memorable moments in the SURF program to a communicating science workshop. The workshop is taught by Patty Raun and Carrie Kroehler, the director and associate director of the Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech and Daniel Bird Tobin, instructor in the School of Performing Arts in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. The course uses theater improvisation games and exercises as well as writing to help students become more effective at communicating their research to the general public. 

“It’s really crazy because we do activities that we would never do elsewhere. In the labs, you are so serious, but then you go to the workshop and you are dancing around. It is a nice change of pace,” said Tunckanat.

In terms of the near future, Tunckanat wants to apply for the Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship so that he can continue to chase his passion for enzymes.

Taylan Tunckanat
Taylan Tunckanat at the Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium

Tunckanat ended his SURF journey on a high note, as he recently presented a poster at Virginia Tech’s Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium, an event that is ­­­held by the Office of Undergraduate Research annually. At the symposium, students from multiple summer programs came together to present their research to other students, researchers, and the public.

The Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium was supported by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

~ Written by Kendall Daniels

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