Sam Glaser seeks to better understand coronavirus protein

Sam Glaser

Major: Physics (Pre-Medicine)
Minors: Philosophy and Spanish

Sam Glaser wanted to chart his own course at KU. As a student in the College, he was able to do just that by creating his own major. Recognizing the need for a pre-medicine-specific concentration within the physics B.S. program, Sam reached out to program directors across the country and began mapping out a plan for the new concentration area.

In the College, Sam has kept a busy schedule with hands-on research projects as well. During the Summer of 2019, he worked in a pulmonary immunology lab, where he gained exposure to medical research. Soon after, he joined another research lab which was a coronavirus virology lab. And in Fall 2020, he was selected as one of eight KU students to receive an Undergraduate Research Award.

Meet Sam and learn more about how he created his own major, the most valuable parts of his experience, and the KU College mentors who helped him along the way.

Where are you from? And why did you decide to come to KU?

Overland Park, Kansas. I am the oldest of 8 kids, and it’s been great being close enough to home so I can still visit my siblings and parents, especially my 11-year-old brother, Gus. Choosing KU over my other options was undoubtedly the smartest move I’ve ever made, and if staying close to my family hadn’t influenced that decision, I would have missed out on the best times you can ask for with great lifelong friends.

Why did you choose your major and minors? And how do they complement each other?

Until about winter break of freshman year my degree was still “undecided,” and I had no idea what career to pursue. That break I spent a lot of late nights going over all the possible degree combinations I was interested in. I thought about studying things like math, physics, political science, economics, and women’s studies before I really felt satisfied with the physics + pre-med + Spanish minor option. Fast-forward to fall of sophomore year, I heard about free cheese and pepperoni pizza at a Society of Physics Students meeting. So, I went to the meeting, and while I was eating the pizza, they started to host an election.

I ran and got elected the Undergraduate Representative on the Department Committee where my role was to represent student concerns in the decision-making process behind changes to curriculum and other miscellaneous things. A topic brought up at the very first committee meeting was the need for a pre-medicine-specific concentration within the physics B.S. I told them that was exactly what I was studying anyway, and from there I began calling Directors of Medical Physics at various universities to help me outline an ideal set of courses.

Making my own major was one of the coolest parts of my KU experience.

I’ve modified a lot about this degree since then, but making my own major was one of the coolest parts of my KU experience. At one point in the fall of my junior year, many of these classes that I’d planned on taking in the coming spring had been switched to fall-only, so I was left with 6 credit hours for the spring 2019. To fill in the gaps, I took Medical Ethics: Life and Death and Moral Issues in Medicine. That summer I took two more philosophy classes and now I’m in my last one to complete a minor. All in all, the way I decided my degree was to just study what I was most interested in and let it work itself out.

What is the most exciting part of your major and minors?

I think having Spanish will always be important for engaging with Spanish-only patients and traveling to other countries.

Probably that most of what I’m learning is directly applicable to practicing medicine or medical research. Classes like immunology, anatomy, and physiology were obviously great for that, but also my physics background has been huge for understanding things like MRIs and PET scans, as well as research techniques involving nuclear magnetic resonance and thermodynamics. I think having Spanish will always be important for engaging with Spanish-only patients and traveling to other countries. The Medical Ethics and Moral Issues in Medicine classes were really interesting to me because as a physician you can encounter a lot of cases that press your moral intuition, so I liked seeing where different sides were coming from as well as learning how those led to actual laws in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

You were named as the recipient of one of eight Undergraduate Research Awards this fall. Please tell us about your research project.

During the summer of 2019 I worked in a pulmonary immunology lab, which is where I got my first exposure to medical research. The mechanism we studied involved a protein family called poly-ADP-ribosylating polymerases (PARPs), which your cells use to promote an immune response. That experience was really cool to me, so I looked on the KU molecular biology website to see if any professors had similar labs that I could join to keep doing research. It turned out that Dr. Anthony Fehr’s coronavirus virology lab studied PARP mechanisms, and at the time I knew nothing about coronaviruses at all. Last school year Dr. Fehr accepted me into his lab, and as his team trained me in his research, the COVID-19 pandemic gradually made its way into lab conversations and eventually grew to where it was on the news.

Last spring, Dr. Fehr explained to me about the UGRA award, and we agreed it would be a perfect opportunity for me to transition from a passive trainee to a more active undergraduate research assistant in the lab. To preface this next part, PARPs work by adding one or multiple ADP-ribose molecules onto DNA-wrapped proteins in order to start manufacturing immunoproteins from those DNA segments. The topic of my UGRA proposal is to understand how a coronavirus ADP-ribosylhydrolase (CARH) protein is able to bind to these ADP-ribose-protein complexes and cleave the ADP-ribose off of it. We already have found that CARH activity is crucial for the virus to thrive and replicate, but we want to know biochemically exactly how CARH kills these ADP-ribose immune signals with the hopes of developing a drug that can specifically disable CARHs but not human proteins.

What is the benefit of being in the KU College alongside students studying sciences, arts and humanities?

It was nice because a lot of my pre-med friends had already taken the classes I was in, so whenever a topic came up that I really struggled with, we’d talk it over and test our understanding until we were certain we had it. By the same token, my physics classmates and I would meet up at a library and work homework problems out on the white board together, which for me was the best way to learn.

Give a shout-out to a professor, mentor, advisor, or someone at KU who has helped you?

Dr. Fehr, Joseph O’Connor, Yousef Alhammad, Nancy Schwarting, Jess Jeannin-Pfannenstiel, Lynden Voth, & Catherine Kerr – Huge thanks to all you guys for everything you’ve taught me about virology and coronaviruses. You guys are brilliant, fun to be around, and have had a lot of patience with my inexperience, and I’ll always be extremely thankful for this chance to work with you on this frontier of the pandemic.

Don’t hesitate to infuse your own fun.

What would you tell your freshman self?

Don’t hesitate to infuse your own fun.

What do you want to do when you graduate?

Hopefully go to medical school and either become a surgeon or an internal medicine subspecialist.

What motivates you?

Learning new things and making people laugh.

Meet more of our students. For more information, explore Department of Physics and Astronomy, Department of Philosophy, and Department of Spanish & Portuguese at the University of Kansas.