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Caitlin Herring at a computer.
June 13, 2024

Chemistry major scores research success before graduation

Caitlin Herring ’24 chose Berry College for its early research opportunities because she was eager to start making scientific discoveries. The only catch? She was unsure which branch of science to explore. Through her classes and laboratory work, and with a faculty mentor’s support, Caitlin found her direction — and national recognition. Plans for her next stop? Pursuing a graduate degree in computational chemistry, with sights set on a research career.

“I love the endless possibilities of chemistry,” Caitlin says. “I find it fascinating how molecules interact to make up our world.”

Joining the laboratory of Quentin Johnson, an assistant professor of biochemistry, after freshman year helped sharpen her focus. Johnson “has given me patience, kindness, and loads of advice,” Caitlin says. “I was extremely nervous about my lack of coding skills and biochemistry knowledge, but he taught me what I needed to know, explaining concepts until I understood.”

In Johnson’s lab, Caitlin modeled molecular activity on a computer in an effort to improve treatments for cystic fibrosis patients. While existing medications target the most common protein mutation triggering the disease, the specific locations where drug molecules bind to the problematic protein are unknown.

“Our research analyzes potential binding sites to discover the most probable site,” Caitlin says. “This information could lead to a modification of current drug designs. For example, if the binding pocket is an oval, and your drug [molecule] is a circle, the drug would work fine, but it would work more efficiently if you shaped the drug to be an oval.” Caitlin was listed as a researcher when the prestigious national journal Biochemistry reported the lab’s findings in 2023.

Caitlin also made a poster presentation at the American Chemical Society’s 2022 national meeting, where she connected with professionals as well as students and faculty from other universities. Participating in the conference boosted her confidence about explaining her research to scientists, she says. Caitlin also became a mentor herself, leading and training four other students in Johnson’s lab.

Rounding out her exploration of chemistry, she gained valuable experience working in the field’s manufacturing side through a summer internship with CJB Industries, located in her hometown of Valdosta, Georgia. There she shadowed chemists using specialized equipment to ensure quality control of insecticide and fungicide products. After a week, Caitlin tested those products herself under supervision.

She advises future students with an interest in science to keep an open mind. “It’s okay if the first thing you try isn’t for you,” she says, noting that Berry offers a wide variety of courses and opportunities to investigate. “The main thing you need for the sciences is a willingness to learn. That’s the only way to find what you like.”

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