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Synthesizing DNA for cancer treatment research

Provost's medal winner makes it sound easy
June 20, 2011
By Jesse B. Staniforth

Source: Concordia Journal

Derek O’Flaherty is as good a teacher as he is a biochemist. He will also serve as valedictorian for his graduating class. | Concordia University
Derek O’Flaherty is as good a teacher as he is a biochemist. He will also serve as valedictorian for his graduating class. | Concordia University

What did Derek O’Flaherty do for his honour’s work in biochemistry that earned him the Provost’s Medal for Outstanding Achievement? He modified a dimer linking two nucleosides, before incorporating it into an oligonucleotide, which he subjected to a chemotherapeutic agent.

Got that? Without a background in biochemistry it might be confusing, but luckily O’Flaherty explains carefully, sensitive to the listener’s questions, and patiently works through each step until the whole thing sounds disturbingly simple.

“I would very much like to teach,” he admits, and he will surely excel when he does.

In the interim, however, he is busy leaping directly into his PhD from his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. He supplemented his degree with participation in Concordia’s Science College and internships through the Institute for Co-operative Education, earning a 4.16 GPA in the process.

For his honour’s work, he synthesized DNA so that he could test how it responds under the influence of chemotherapy. Eventually he ran into trouble purifying the DNA he had synthesized.

“When we make DNA,” O’Flaherty explains, “we add, let’s say, five or six components together, and what we want is only one of those six. So we must isolate that specific product without getting all the other garbage as well. In simpler terms, it’s the opposite of mixing: unmixing.” That process helped him gather the information he needed to better monitor the effects of chemotherapy.

O’Flaherty carries the task of purifying DNA with him into his doctoral studies which, like his BSc, will be supervised by Christopher J. Wilds (whose students are known as The Wilds Bunch). His first co-op work term was in Wilds’s lab. That experience was instrumental in his decision to continue his education at Concordia.

Likewise, O’Flaherty credits the patient guidance of Sébastien Robidoux, director of the biochemistry co-op program, for steering him through the competing demands of co-op and the Science College. The result was a lot of opportunity to get the hands-on experience he needed.

“He is definitely an excellent professor,” O’Flaherty says. “I think the fact that the Chemistry and Biochemistry Program at Concordia has a lot of practical aspects, and a lot of lab work, also made me want to come back.”

Related links:

•   Concordia's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
•   Concordia's Science College
•   Concordia's Institute for Co-operative Education

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