Gerri Roberts, a senior majoring in chemistry, has received a Fulbright fellowship to study new cancer-fighting drugs in Germany.
Her fellowship, she says, will serve as a bridge between the chemistry she's learned as an undergrad at Caltech and what she hopes to study in graduate school.
The Fulbright Scholar Program, created by the U.S. Congress in 1946, is a cultural exchange program that offers grants to Americans who wish to perform research or pursue creative activities abroad. Over 150 countries are involved in the program, which sends approximately 1,200 Americans abroad each year.
In Germany, Roberts will investigate a class of molecules that inhibit aquaporins, cellular proteins that, as their name would suggest, act as pores that permit water to flow through a membrane.
In humans, there are 13 types of aquaporins, with several varieties that ferry specific molecules like ammonia, CO2, or urea along with water through the cell membrane.
"There is an aquaporin that regulates glycerol and is overexpressed in certain cancers," Roberts says.
At the Technical University of Munich, Roberts will work for Fritz Kühn, associate professor of molecular catalysis, attempting to "tune" gold-containing molecules that have been shown to block the glycerol aquaporin. Roberts says the overexpression of glycerol aquaporins in cancer cells could imply that glycerol has an important role in the cells' proliferation. It's hypothesized that a drug that blocks the glycerin aquaporin could serve as a cancer treatment, Roberts says.
At Caltech, Roberts has focused her studies on inorganic chemistry and has worked in the lab of Jonas C. Peters, Bren Professor of Chemistry and director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute. Through Caltech's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, she was able to travel to Oxford University in 2015, where she researched bacterial enzymes. She says that experience has helped prepare her for her trip to Germany.
"Having been to a new country by yourself and surviving for three months boosts your confidence," she says. "I know what it's like to go to a place and not know anyone."
Roberts says she's wanted for years to return to Germany, where she lived for nine months at age six. As a Fulbright fellow, Roberts will serve as cultural ambassador for the United States in addition to conducting her research. She hopes to participate in a German program called Wellcome, which pairs volunteers with young parents who need assistance transitioning into parenthood.
"I believe family life is one of the best ways to learn about culture," she wrote in her Fulbright proposal. "By helping new mothers and fathers, I will get an authentic view of the values and everyday life of families in Munich. This door into a different culture is rare and enriching."
After returning to the U.S., Roberts will attend graduate school at Northwestern University to study bioinorganic chemistry with a focus on metalloenzymes and metal transport in cells. She says she may eventually want to become a professor.
Students who are U.S. citizens and interested in the Fulbright program can receive more information about applying by contacting Lauren Stolper, director of Fellowships Advising & Study Abroad.