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URAC Presenter: Senior biochemistry major looks at alpha-synuclein structure

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Posted on Thursday, April 15, 2021

Brandon Williams, one of the eight select podium presenters to be featured at this year’s Undergraduate Research and Arts Celebration (URAC) on Wednesday, April 21, will discuss his senior honors capstone project, “Distinguishing Differing Conformations of Membrane-Bound Alpha-Synuclein through Distance Measurements.”

The biochemistry major from Sandy Lake, Pa., studied alpha-synuclein—a protein that is involved in the transport of lipid vesicles, the molecules that carry neurotransmitters through the body’s neurons—and how it binds to membranes. Williams researched the structure of alpha-synuclein, which can take on two different shapes when bound to lipid vesicles: a horseshoe-like structure or a straight line.

“I had to generate computer models of alpha-synuclein to select specific sites on the protein that I wanted to target. I wanted to choose sites that if the protein was in the horseshoe structure the distance between the sites would be small, but if it was in the straight line structure it would be greater,” said Williams. After generating the computer models, Williams worked on mutating the protein to add spin labels in order to get a distance measurement. “I also started doing computational work—if I code the protein to act in a certain way, I can see what structure it will take and hopefully see those results played out experimentally.”

A grant from Westminster’s Drinko Center for Undergraduate Research helped advance Williams’ research of the protein, which has been linked to dementia or Parkinson’s disease.

Williams said by conducting this high level of research as an undergraduate, he’s also developed a set of soft skills that will be necessary as he moves forward in his career.

“Conducting research has made me more independent. I feel more confident in my abilities to read, understand and apply the theoretical and experimental concepts a scientific journal article as well as working hands-on in a research laboratory. It has also taught me how to manage my time very well. There are some techniques that require multiple hours of my time at once and others that may only require 15 minutes. I believe it has prepared me well for my future plans,” he said.

Williams conducted his research under the guidance of Dr. Jessica Sarver, assistant professor of chemistry.

“Working with Dr. Sarver has been a wonderful experience. She is always more than willing to assist with problems that may arise and wants to see us succeed in all of our endeavors. She is of the mindset that research is collaborative and it really reflects in her actions,” Williams said. “We meet weekly to discuss the status of the project, any problems that may be occurring and to see if there are any papers or resources she can provide that may help us overcome the obstacle first on our own and then working in tandem.”

Following graduation from Westminster, Williams will attend Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine Erie Campus to study medicine. He plans to become a transplant anesthesiologist.

Westminster’s Drinko Center for Undergraduate Research financially supports undergraduate research through various grants aimed at either the undertaking of research and creative projects at Westminster College or the external presentation and dissemination of research and creative works at conferences. For more information about the Drinko Center, please contact Dr. Karen Resendes, director, at

To learn more about Westminster’s biochemistry major, please visit