Decoding the Building Blocks
The average person has about 36 billion cells and organisms in their body.
Contained within a tiny fraction of this organic material are the DNA, the blueprints and instructions needed to keep the body regulated, from cell division and organ health, to immune system upkeep and respiration.
Our bodies are walking, talking, functioning reminders that relative size has no bearing on importance or relevance, and that some of the most powerful forces in the universe exist at the smallest level.
All life on Earth depends on biochemical reactions and processes such as these, whether it’s the building of complex proteins in your cells or the conversion of energy by photosynthesis in plants. Life is a cycle and network of biochemical activity.
The Northeastern biochemistry program incorporates the fields of physics, biology, chemistry, and mathematics to provide a holistic understanding of the mechanisms of life at every scale.
Integrates molecular biology and biochemistry in the cellular context. Focuses on the organization and function of eukaryotic cells, including the regulation of nuclear structure and gene expression, signal transduction, protein synthesis and growth, cellular energetics, the cytoskeleton and cell motility, cell division, and cell death. Emphasizes the scientific methodologies and approaches that underlie discovery in cell biology.
Focuses on mechanisms of inheritance, gene-genome structure and function, and developmental genetics and evolution. Examples are drawn from the broad spectrum of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and viruses. Topics and analytical approaches include transmission genetics, molecular biology and gene regulation, DNA molecular methods, quantitative and population genetics, bioinformatics, genomics, and proteomics.
Introduces protein chemistry in the context of molecular medicine. Discusses analytical methods used to elucidate the origin, structure, function, and purification of proteins. Surveys the synthesis and chemical properties of structurally and functionally diverse proteins, including globular, membrane, and fibrous proteins. Discusses the role of intra- and intermolecular interactions in determining protein conformation, protein folding, and in their enzymatic activity.
After their sophomore year, undergraduates can take an accelerated path towards earning their masters degree in less time. Learn more about our 22 PlusOne offerings below.
PreMed & PreHealth
Our PreMed and PreHealth Advising program offers personalized expertise to COS students pursuing careers in health careers. This comprehensive program includes application guidance, workshops and presentations, course mapping and more.
Biochemistry research is interdisciplinary by nature, and there’s a broad array of laboratory research opportunities to explore here on campus, as well and nationally and internationally. Learn more about your research options for co-op, summer research, and more!
Magnify your Learning with Co-op
Starting around sophomore year, Northeastern’s unique co-operative education program allows biochemistry students to explore different pathways and potential careers both locally and around the globe. Hear what previous biochemistry students had to say about their experience with the program:
Brian Cortese, Biochemistry’19
“There’s a lot more to it than just learning the bench and the skills, it’s about how to think, it’s about meeting new people, and it’s really all about the mentorship that will help you reach your potential long term.”
Zoe Bishop, Biochemistry Major
“My first co-op PI was on the admissions board for Harvard Medical School– talk about friends in high places! He’s helped me make important decisions, and I’m very thankful for that level of mentorship.”
Kalil Menezes, Biochemistry Major
Co-op took me to Belgium where I spent weekdays in the neuroscience lab and weekends making unforgettable memories with friends.
ASBMB Chapter President Evan Mun and Vice President Julian Amirault made their final year before graduation count, filling it with a variety of professional development and social activities for the benefit of students with a true passion or even just a budding curiosity for biochemistry and molecular biology. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) recently recognized them for their efforts, awarding the Chapter the ‘Outstanding Chapter of the Year’ honor. There are about 120 Chapters nationally, and the Chapter had last received the designation in 2016.
In order to successfully pull off their many achievements, the two needed to work hand in hand with the rest of their executive board, consisting of Ariella Bourdeau, Anders Lindberg, Kathleen Merritt, and Jared Subiono. One of their most complex events of the academic year involved hosting the ASBMB Northeast Regional Meeting, which was attended on NU campus in November 2019 by approximately 100 undergraduate attendees from 14 different schools, and included a poster competition with judges from 14 different institutions. Members of the Roxbury Community College Chapter, which is their Minority-Serving Institution ASBMB partner Chapter, were also very important in organizing and executing the event successfully. The NU students were able to take advantage of their experience from the past, having successfully hosted the event the four previous years.
The ‘Outstanding Chapter’ award also recognized the Chapter’s commitment to organizing a diverse set of group activities, as well as the individual excellence within the Chapter’s 140+ members. Their faculty advisor, Prof. Kirsten Fertuck, is confident that this fall their new president, Ariella Bourdeau will continue the strong tradition of the Chapter, with many new ideas for the coming year.
Mary Jo Ondrechen, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology, wants to identify all of the amino acids responsible for the abilities of the coronavirus to infect and thrive at the expense of human cells. Together with Penny Beuning, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology, Ondrechen recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to use machine learning algorithms and experimental lab work to do just that.
Research led by Ondrechen and Beuning could help researchers gain a better understanding of the biochemistry of SARS-CoV-2, and serve as the basis for developing new drugs to inhibit its infectious abilities.
Dr. Ali Wallace ’13 works as a Pediatric Resident Physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. She took time out of her increasingly busy schedule to give us an inside look at COVID-19 preparations, as well as to discuss how her experience at Northeastern shaped her into the doctor she is today.
Can you tell me about your experience at Northeastern?
I started my journey at Northeastern as a Chemistry major. I quickly realized the lab environment wasn’t for me (thanks co-op!) so transitioned into Biochemistry, with a minor in Psychology.
I lived on campus for a majority of college, which I absolutely loved (don’t ever take for granted those floor-to-ceiling-window-Boston-views in West Village).
I also did a Dialogue Program abroad in Italy. I spent my free time dancing in a few club groups (first season of No Limits Dance Crew!) and going on hikes with NUHOC, which I will forever be grateful for because that is how I met my now husband!
I graduated in 2013 and miss college all the time!
What kind of co-ops did you go on?
My first co-op was doing Immunology research at Biogen – a pharmaceutical company in Cambridge. I worked with cell lines and mice, and learned a ton, but mostly that I wasn’t cut out for an entire career in a lab.
I knew I wanted to work with people and I found a more clinical co-op as a Newborn Hearing Screener at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which I still believe to be the best job ever! I cuddled newborns all day and got to congratulate new parents when their baby passed its “first test”! This was my first clinical experience in Pediatrics and it obviously left an impression on me. I really enjoyed the Pediatricians I worked with, the hospital environment, and being a part of special moments on a daily basis.
How did Northeastern and COS help shape your interests and/or prepare you for what you’re doing today?
I am forever grateful for the flexibility that Northeastern gave me while trying to find my ideal career path.
I came to college passionate about Genetics, inspired by my older sister who is developmentally disabled. I just didn’t quite know what that looked like in terms of a future career. You’ll never know if you like something until you try it!
I always loved science, but never really considered clinical medicine until after I realized I didn’t want to work in a lab. I always wonder where I would have ended up if I didn’t have that first co-op experience early in my college career. But every experience along the way has helped me to learn more about myself and the things that kept me going each day.
Where did you land after you left the University?
I was lucky enough to be accepted to Tufts University School of Medicine – right down the road from NU! I was one of 5 fellow Huskies in my class, which was awesome! Medical school was an awesome experience, and my time at Northeastern definitely prepared me for the trials and tribulations of life as a med student.
You’re currently at MGH as a Pediatric Resident Physician. What’s a normal day look like for you?
Yes! I am currently in my third and last year, and will be graduating in June! Every day is truly different and unpredictable.
We rotate through various parts of the hospital (Emergency Room, PICU, newborn nursery, NICU etc) and with various sub-specialties (Oncology, Cardiology, Pulmonary, etc) so each block is very different and your role is ever-changing.
This makes life as a resident exciting, but also stressful. We work days, nights, weekends, and 24 hours shifts. On a typical day on an inpatient unit (just to give you a rough idea), we get sign out from the overnight team at around 6:30 am.
We have lectures around 8 am, and spend the morning rounding, or going room to room to see each patient. The team usually consists of a senior resident, and intern, and a couple of medical students. We examine our patients, make a treatment plan, talk with families, and order any tests or labs that are needed.
The afternoons are for learning, following up on results, and admitting new kids to the hospital! There are rarely dull moments. I see sick children in the Emergency one day, and well children in clinic the next! I love attending deliveries of newborns – my favorite thing ever is showing a brand new dad how to cut the umbilical cord. The various reactions and responses are priceless!
Do you find the work rewarding?
I may be bias, but it is hard for me to imagine anything more fun or rewarding than taking care of children.
They are incredibly resilient, wise, and loving. We dress up for holidays at work, partake in crafts, birthday parties, and last day of chemo celebrations.
The work is hard, but there aren’t many days when I’m not smiling. My co-residents are also amazing, and I like to think that Pediatricians in particular are just nice and genuine people- one of the biggest things that drew me to the field in the first place!
With the COVID-19 outbreak, can you talk about your current role is and how work at MGH has evolved over the past couple weeks?
What an unprecedented time.
Today is March 16th, and I know things will be much different 1 week from now. MGH is full of incredibly smart and hard working people who having been working endless hours to keep our community safe, and I am honored to be part of such an institution.
Life as a resident has changed dramatically – all elective rotations or roles that are not necessary have been cancelled. We have actually been cutting back on the number of residents in the hospital to limit potential exposures amongst staff. Many of us are at home on back-up call, practicing social distancing and staying healthy until we will have to replace others that become sick.
We have continued having educational conferences virtually, while supporting those on the front lines until we get called in to work.
Based on some recent research, children are less severely affected by the virus, so our department is prepared to help out on the adult side when necessary. There has been a lot of careful preparation for whatever the next few days/weeks throw at us.
Is there anything you’re not hearing discussed enough when it comes to the outbreak that could help people be proactive and stay safe?
I encourage people to visit the CDC website for the most up to date information, as recommendations have been changing by the hour.
But I will say, this is not a time to be cavalier about the coronavirus. While you may not feel at risk as a young, healthy, college student, the downstream effects of transmission are extremely frightening.
We need to prevent the collapse of our medical system and every decision you make counts. Wash your hands, stay home if you are sick, and don’t hang out with large groups of people.
Help each other out! Grab groceries for an elderly neighbor; offer to pick up things for friends if making a trip to the store.
And finally, stay connected with friends and families virtually! These are trying times, and we can all use each other’s support. Keep an eye out for virtual concerts (ie Dropkick Murphy’s St. Patrick Day show, or the MET Opera, who will be streaming shows for free!) and free yoga and exercise classes that can be done from home.
Imagine if we could grow a building the way coral polyps grow a reef, or if living cells in our clothes could break down sweat and body odor. Imagine colonies of bacteria on space stations produced the filament for 3D printers. Imagine materials we use every day could repair themselves.
It sounds like science fiction, but Neel Joshi, an associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern, believes such feats are achievable. And the National Science Foundation agrees.
Engineered living materials—substances made of or by reprogrammed cells—could improve on and replace plastics, concrete, and other materials that are currently made with more standard manufacturing practices, Joshi says.
“The carbon footprint of materials manufactured for our entire built environment is huge,” Joshi says. “Being able to decrease that by following the model of how biology builds things is going to be very important.”
This idea, submitted by Joshi and his team, has been selected as a grand prize winner in the National Science Foundation’s 2026 Idea Machine competition, which sought “grand challenges” to help shape the U.S. research agenda for years to come. The team’s proposal was one of four grand prize winners selected from close to 800 submissions.
The idea of using bacteria to build things isn’t as wild as it may seem, Joshi says. The biomanufacturing industry already uses microbes to make fragrances, vitamins, pharmaceuticals, and other useful molecules. And there are a few larger materials being created by living cells as well.
“Some of our compostable plastics that you might find in the cafeteria are made from polymers that are harvested from microbes,” Joshi says. “That’s a step in the right direction. But there are very few examples of those types of materials, and they also don’t really cover the wide range of material properties that we would want. The real vision of engineered living materials is to go beyond that and program cells to make functional materials and goods directly, circumventing traditional manufacturing practices.”
Getting living cells to build a coherent material, as opposed to a molecule, is more challenging, but this happens regularly in nature. Some colonies of microorganisms create slick, glue-like layers called biofilms to protect themselves—think of the plaque on your teeth or the slime on a river rock—and these mechanisms could be adapted to create things like waterproof coatings or plastic-like materials.
Currently, we make about 300 million tons of plastic every year, and the vast majority of it is not recycled. Plastics don’t really break down in the environment, and researchers are looking for ways to tackle the growing problem of plastic waste. Materials made by cells are much more likely to be biodegradable, Joshi says.
“Biology is very good at converting stuff that was useful in one form into another form and reusing all the same raw materials to make something else,” Joshi says. “Anything that you make from a living system is likely going to be more degradable than plastic.”
Joshi and his colleagues are already working on several new materials in their lab, including plastic-like substances created by bacteria.
“Learning from nature has been one part of doing this research,” says Avinash Manjula Basavanna, a postdoctoral researcher who has been focusing on creating bioplastics. “But this is one step ahead of typical biomimicry. We are engineering biology to customize materials to whatever we want.”
The group is also tweaking a biofilm created by E. coli bacteria to have different properties. The bacteria could be used to create a protective layer in the gut of someone with Crohn’s disease or colitis, guiding healing of lesions and inflamed areas.
“In the next 10 years, we will talk about using microbes for producing materials for different applications beyond what we can even imagine right now,” says Anna Duraj-Thatte, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab. “This is just the beginning.”
This story was originally published on [email protected] on February 5, 2020