Anthony Flores ’20 is a graduating senior majoring in chemical engineering. In his sophomore year, he joined the Stanford ChEM-H Undergrad Scholars Program, which introduces undergrads to research through interactive coursework and full-time, hands-on lab experience with postdoctoral mentors. Since then, he has been working in the lab of Judith Frydman, professor of biology. This fall, he will begin his graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he hopes to pursue cancer research. Here, he talks to us about jumping into research, directed evolution, and important mentors from his Stanford career.
Why did you decide to conduct research as an undergrad?
I have always loved the idea of research, of learning about the unknown. To me, research is like jumping off a cliff of “what you know” and hoping there’s a landing place. I’ve been interested in science and math from a young age. Always in the back of my head has been that I wanted explore science and contribute to the world in a lasting way. What I wanted, for a long time, was to contribute to the world of medicine with my own therapeutic. And for a while I thought that, as a chemical engineer, I would be producing the drug. I never really thought that I would be the person thinking about the concept of the drug itself, which is what I’m doing now.
As I became more comfortable in my classes, I started talking with Chaitan Khosla and Gerry Fuller, who got me excited about the idea of researching therapeutics. I knew I wanted to be at the intersection of health and chemistry, and I didn’t have previous research experience, so the ChEM-H Undergrad Scholars Program seemed like the perfect fit. The program helped so many of us with little research experience get comfortable so that we could really become independent researchers. I carry forward the skills I learned, like how to design figures or write in clear, concise ways, as I go on to graduate school.
What have you been researching?
I have been working for the last two years on Huntington’s disease. In my research, I have been developing a chaperone-based reagent that can get into cells and modify the toxic aggregates found in Huntington’s patients. The specific chaperone I’ve been working with is called TRiC. It is good at penetrating cells, but it is very unstable. My project was finding ways to make this protein more stable so that it could survive within cells and still provide its therapeutic effect.
What has it been like as a chemical engineer working in a biology lab?
The research I did initially was really qualitative. We were looking at this therapeutic from a high standpoint, trying to understand whether or not it stops pathogenesis in cells. Coming from a chemical engineering background, I really pushed to get a more quantitative understanding. I wanted to get at the question: how much can I improve this? I approached this answer through directed evolution, which is like survival of the fittest in a laboratory setting. We mutate and modify the protein over generations and generations until we get the most stable one. We are, in a way, quickening nature’s way of finding the best protein.
Who have been some of your most significant mentors here at Stanford?
T. Kelly Rainbolt has been my mentor in my lab since I began research as part of the Undergrad Scholars Program. I admire his patience and positive attitude. At the beginning, I made so many mistakes. It was my first research experience, so it was daunting. He was a valuable teacher, not just from a technical standpoint but also in teaching me about communication and engaging with research in the lab outside of my own project.
Gerry Fuller has been instrumental in my applying to grad school. He encouraged me through the whole process. He inspired me to look beyond the barriers and lack of representation that I, a first-generation and minority student, was looking at and instead see my own potential.
Chaitan Khosla has been my major advisor and my in-department advisor for my independent research. He has been very encouraging through my research, and he has an open-door policy. He has always been willing to meet with me to discuss anything from grad school, to drawing up figures, to project advice. He’s been a great role model as well.
How does it feel to be finishing your Stanford career right now?
Given the circumstances, I’m happy with the progress I made on my research project and I’m happy with not just the things I learned from the project, but also the skills I’ve gained. Hopefully, in the future, I’ll be able to visit the Frydman lab and be able to say some goodbyes and express how much appreciate everyone’s help. I definitely count my blessings. I’m healthy, I’m able to graduate in four years, and I’m going to graduate school in the fall. I’m excited about the future.