While many college students are hitting the beach this summer, New College student David Bacsik is at Northwestern University's medical school, tinkering with the genes in muscle cells in hopes of decoding one of the keys to obesity.
Bacsik is one of 15 undergraduate students nationwide to receive a summer research grant from the Endocrine Society. He is working for 12 weeks this summer in the Bass Lab, part of the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago.
He'll return to New College this fall to finish his studies in biology. But for now, Bacsik is working under the guidance of noted endocrinologist Dr. Joseph Bass to determine how cells' biological clocks affect how the body burns fat.
The research seems esoteric, but it has significant, even global implications.
"The prevalence of metabolic disorders is growing rapidly, first in the West, and now around the globe," Bacsik said. "It's becoming a problem in the developing world. It's clear that we need to change something about how we're treating it."
The work would contribute to a better understanding of metabolic syndrome, the combination of conditions that drastically increase the risk of developing diabetes. So the research may ultimately improve treatment of diabetes as well.
Though the science is complex, it starts with the simplest of human activities: sleep - or the lack of it.
It's already known that people whose sleep is regularly disrupted, like those who work night shifts, are at a greater risk of developing type-2 diabetes. Bacsik's research looks at a possible reason for that greater risk.
"We are trying to understand the relationship between circadian rhythms and fat metabolism," he said.
He is examining the molecular reactions that connect the two processes, in order to figure out how the clock modulates metabolic activity.
Recent research has shown that circadian rhythms will cause oscillation in a cell's level of NAD+, a coenzyme that facilitates oxidation. A class of enzymes known as sirtuins, which are dependent on NAD+, regulates other enzymes involved in fat metabolism.
Bacsik's experiments will involve disrupting the genes that regulate the circadian clocks in skeletal muscle cells. He predicts it will lead to lower levels of NAD+, reduced sirtuin activity and less fat oxidation.
While he's happy to be working in a field that's relevant to millions of people, he also enjoys it purely for the science. He also finds it exciting purely on a scientific level. "It lets me explore acetylation, a post-translational modification, which are fascinating because they add so much complexity to cellular processes," he said.
Bacsik, who was raised in Wisconsin and now lives in Michigan, has always enjoyed science, something he attributes largely to "great mentors" throughout his education. At New College, he works with chemistry Prof. Suzanne Sherman, who did her doctoral work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and biology Prof. Amy Clore, known for her gene expression research funded through major grants from the National Science Foundation.
He has not seen much of them lately, though: Bacsik is coming off an academic year spent at University of Oxford's Trinity College, where he studied cell biology. One of his professors was an expert in insulin secretion, giving Bacsik more insight into obesity and diabetes.
During his New College career, he also has studied philosophy and public policy, but he is focused on they don't have the same allure as his new field.
"I still find them interesting, but nothing is as exciting to me as health and science," he said. "My interests lie at the interface of science and medicine, and I'm really lucky that the physician-scientist role has been developed, and will allow me to do that."