September 25, 2014 | Matt Kucinski

Chemistry professors Brendan Looyenga, Larry Louters and Eric Arnoys have teamed up in researching GLUT1.

Calvin chemistry professors Larry Louters, Eric Arnoys and Brendan Looyenga are neighbors—their offices are lined up in DeVries Hall.

While the three work in the same department, their research interests are all different. And throughout the year they work one-on-one with students to research in these areas.

Working as a team

But, this summer, the three professors and their students joined forces, working together funded by a new $377,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“This is a great example of intra-institutional collaboration,” said Looyenga.

The three are working with students in gaining a better understanding of the regulation of GLUT1, a protein that facilitates the transport of glucose across the plasma membranes of mammalian cells.  Understanding how GLUT1 activity is regulated may provide insight into avenues for therapeutic intervention into diseases like diabetes and cancer.

“GLUT1 insures that each cell receives a basic amount of glucose but we have also found that GLUT1 can be quickly activated—we have discovered 10-12 different ways to activate this transporter. From these studies we were able to deduce some about the mechanism of activation,” said Louters, who also received an NIH grant in 2009 to study GLUT1 regulation. “But, we needed sophisticated genetic engineering tools to gain further insights. That’s where Brendan and Eric came in. These guys brought the new tools.”

Adding new perspectives

Arnoys began some key experiments as part of Louters first NIH grant, but he has a much greater role in this grant utilizing his expertise in understanding the traffic flow of proteins in a cell. And Looyenga, who is involved in research at the Van Andel Institute in downtown Grand Rapids, brings his expertise in understanding GLUT1 activity and its relation to cancer.

Louters says the NIH reviewers saw this collaboration as a real positive and liked the new ideas that Looyenga and Arnoys brought to the project.

“It’s the notion of pure learning,” said Louters. “All by yourself you may miss or overlook some things, you don’t think of another way to look at it. There’s synergy when multiple people are thinking about the same thing, but doing so with different research interests.”

Enhancing the student research experience

While the three have benefitted greatly from the collaborative research experience, so have their students. This summer, nine students (Evans Lodge, Aimee Vos, Jed Bell, Sam Schuiteman, Calvin VanOpstall, Mia Rienstra, Ryan Bylsma, Kat Wrobel and Kate Hamilton) worked with the three professors in this unique research environment.

“It developed a new way of thinking for me,” said Aimee Vos, a biochemistry major. “I’ve always been very inclined to seeing a problem, finding a solution and being done with it. This was a great experience. To develop scientific curiosity, to find my own answers to my questions, to be given time to pursue those answers, rather than having to move onto the next topic like you have to do in a lecture course.”

“In class, in taking tests, there’s usually an objective right answer to stuff, especially in the sciences and I love that. I love the challenge of learning biochemistry,” said Evans Lodge, a geography and biochemistry major. “But getting to do research is intriguing in that it kind of levels the playing field when we all are asking questions together that nobody has the answers to yet.”

While Vos and Lodge each have their individual assignments within the research project, they say they’ve appreciated learning from everyone on the research team and the way teamwork has been modeled by the professors.

“I’ve appreciated seeing the interplay between all of them and all the student technicians. Getting to interact with all three professors made for an interesting summer, where I was able to learn from more than one person’s perspective the whole time,” said Lodge.

“Your job as a researcher is never done,” said Vos. “Every test, every experiment leads to at least five different questions. It’s incredibly intriguing to have permission to go ahead and explore these different questions, because they never end.”

Instilling confidence through learning

The professors have become students, too, learning as the research progresses.

"We pushed back into a lot of new areas this summer and we didn’t really finish any one project,” said Louters. “Normally one of the big struggles in maintaining a research project by yourself is generating new ideas. However, with the three of us and our students working together we generated more ideas than we had time to chase down.”

“We talk about the importance of graduate and undergraduate students needing to work as a team,” said Looyenga. “This unique environment is modeling to students how they should work. It’s showing them to be successful in science you don’t need to know everything, but you need to get a few people together that complement one another.”

“A student in my lab this summer was teaching me a new technique and said ‘you aren’t doing it right,’” said Arnoys. “[For a student] to have the confidence to correct me is pretty awesome.”

Calvin College consistently receives funding from NIH. Since 2000, Calvin has received more than $3.5 million in NIH support, putting Calvin College among the leaders in west Michigan.

Aimee Vos

Evans Lodge

Aimee Vos, Evans Lodge

Understanding the research

Brendan Looyenga describes it in layperson's terms:

“I’ll use the analogy of a cell as a city. A city has lots of parts, and one thing a city has is traffic—you have to move all sorts of cargo both into and around a cell just like in a city. We are especially interested in how cells regulate where traffic goes. Who controls the traffic flow? What are the red/green lights, or the stop signs? Knowing the answers to these questions has implications for diabetes and cancer, since errors in protein cargo trafficking are known to play a role in both of these diseases. In a city, it’s easy to pick out a couple of cars with their headlights on, so in a cell we add a fluorescent tag to one of the “cars" (GLUT1), so that we can understand the route that it is taking in the cell. We can also use a variation on this technique to look at how two molecules (cars) interact. In this scenario, one “car” generates light and the other "car" reflects light to determine their proximity to one another. When the two “cars” get close together, you start seeing both of their lights. From this, we will be able to tell where and when they are in the same "parking lot" (part of the cell), but also when they are messing up traffic in the cell."

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