Professor of Chemistry Timothy Curran, bottom left, joins his summer 2015 research group. Clockwise from top left: Griffith Scholar Paul Handali ’18, Alfred L. Peiker Scholar Vu Nguyen ’17, Elena-Marie Pedro ’17, Jack Suitor (University of Edinburgh), Jerome C. Cuppia, Jr. and Doris White Cuppia Memorial Scholar Joe Sanderson-Brown ’18, and Curran Photo: Maria Krisch

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded a $234,957 grant to Trinity College Professor of Chemistry Timothy Curran to examine a potential new method of creating protein shapes called beta-sheets, which may have implications for understanding amyloid diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Curran is the principal investigator of the project, “RUI: Investigations of a Novel, Bimetallic Ring System for Nucleating Beta-Sheets.”

The beta-sheet protein shape, Curran said, “is found in the protein plaques that form in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, clogging the brain’s neurons.” With this grant-funded project, Curran plans to investigate how these beta-sheets form and how they might be broken up.
Curran and his undergraduate students have discovered a cyclic, air-stable molecule that includes the metals tungsten and iron, which can position two protein chains next to each other as found in beta-sheets. “We have a model chemical system that we think might be able to generate beta-sheets,” he said. “Long range, this could help combat diseases like Alzheimer’s.”

The grant also includes funds to support three students for three summers and allows them to travel with Curran to conferences. “This grant offers a great opportunity for students,” he said.

Curran, chair of Trinity’s Chemistry Department, spent the summer of 2015 working with Trinity students from all over the world. “They were from Trinidad, Great Britain, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Windsor, Connecticut,” he said.
Curran said that his students were partly responsible for leading him to the particular line of inquiry pursued by this project. “This one came about because Allison Lawrence ’10 in my lab made a discovery about this molecule that had a particular shape,” he said. “In our lab, we make molecules that no one has ever made before. A student who makes a new molecule in my lab is the first person in the history of the planet to make that molecule. It’s one of the ways they can be unique.”

Involving students in research has always been important to Curran, who hopes to inspire a new generation of scientists. “I wanted to work at a school like Trinity because I started in science by having people let me work in their labs in the summertime, and I wanted to do the same thing for other students,” he said. “I like seeing students succeed.”