Gordon in the News: last updated 04/01/2014

Class of 2012 Biology Graduate Pursues Protein Research at UCSF

Ken HallenbeckBy Mac Gostow ’13

Ken Hallenbeck ’12 recently received a coveted National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, which is funding three years of research as he works toward his Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences and pharmacogenomics at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). In a round with 13,000 applicants, Ken was one of 2,000 to receive a grant. He works alongside UCSF biology and pharmaceutical chemistry professor Michelle Arkin, analyzing and modulating the structures of elusive proteins.

In high school, he set his sights on graduate work at a large university, and decided to “get a broad and personal undergrad education to balance it out.” At Gordon he double majored in biology and philosophy, ran cross country and track, studied abroad, worked in Dining Services and as a teaching assistant, and led the student government. “I saw it as my time to experience as many fields as possible, to confirm that science was where God wanted me, and then develop a thoughtful worldview that could stand up to the rigors of being a Christian in a hard science,” he says. “At Gordon, I received an education needed to do research anywhere.”

An internship at the Cambridge biopharmaceutical startup Epizyme focused Ken's scientific interest on drug discovery, which he describes as a lengthy process of recognizing a target protein, analyzing its structure and finding other molecules that interact with it. “Proteins consist of chains of amino acids and perform a vast array of functions, from catalyzing metabolic reactions to replicating DNA,” he notes. These functions are defined by each protein’s three-dimensional shape, which is itself a complex interaction of the protein’s own amino acids. Often, modulating the details of these structures is the key to controlling disease. His UCSF research focuses on the role of a cell-surface receptor in multiple sclerosis pathogenesis.

Because proteins are too small to see with a standard microscope, protein X-ray crystallography has become the primary technique used to analyze these molecules at the atomic level. By blasting super-concentrated protein crystals with high-intensity X-rays, the structures can be carefully mapped into a three-dimensional model. These sophisticated processes enable scientists to pinpoint complicated targets and optimize drugs to engage them.

Dr. Arkin describes Ken as “an enthusiastic drug hunter who takes innovative approaches toward developing drugs and has an unusual ability to grasp the big picture of his projects.” The novelty of his work drives him: “Nobody has ever done what I am doing before,” Ken says. “When I make a new protein construct and test to see if something binds to it, I don’t know the answer, and nobody who has ever lived does either. The fact that there is an answer but that we don’t know it yet is too cool for me to resist.”

Mac Gostow ’13 is a communications strategist with The Laidlaw Group, a Boston-based advrtising agency, and serves as assistant the artistic director at ImprovBoston. While a student at Gordon, Mac majored in communication arts (and double minored in business administration and sociology), performed with the Sweaty-Toothed Madmen improv comedy troupe, interned at CBS News in New York City, co-founded Scot Radio, and studied abroad in Turkey, where he was a show host for Istanbul's KURadyo. He now performs regularly at ImprovBoston as a member of the Family Show cast.