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Shedding light on a protein, and a future

While on a research co-op in London, senior Brendon Kellner investigated the inner workings of certain proteins through state-of-the-art ultrafast lasers. These lasers generate light pulses for only a tiny fraction of a second, but the impact of his experiential learning opportunity will last far longer.

Kellner, a dual major in physics and philosophy, worked in the Division of Molecular Biology at Imperial College London, in a new lab designed to analyze the molecular dynamics of light-activated proteins and processes such as photosynthesis.

One protein Kellner has studied is phytochrome, which senses light in plants and some bacteria. He measured the excited-state electronic pathways in hopes of understanding how the protein changes shape once it has absorbed light. Kellner also spent a month growing E. coli that had been genetically transformed to express a green fluorescent protein from jellyfish—a protein often used as a marker in biological studies—and purifying it for similar spectroscopy experiments.

“It’s great to work with state-of-the-art equipment, and push against fundamental physical limits,” Kellner said.

He not only learned high-end science, but he also absorbed the intricacies of the technology that yield such discoveries. Developing the laser apparatus and characterizing its vibrational noise, for instance, has exposed him to 3D drafting software, signal processing, and general applied optical principles. He also was able to build on his lab work from a previous co-op at the Leibniz Universität in Hannover, Germany, where he researched pea plant genetic transformation systems.

“It was a nice broadening of my abilities and connection of multiple interests,” he said.

Kellner credits Professor Paul Champion, interim chair of the physics department, with helping him get the opportunity at Imperial College. Kellner has done research work in Champion’s lab, and Champion, in turn, has collaborated with Imperial College researcher Jasper van Thor.

“He is really industrious, and he’s done very well,” Champion said of Kellner.

Since arriving at Northeastern, Kellner has considered majoring in political science and engineering. But upon reflection, he said his decision to ultimately dual major in physics and philosophy stems from his “drive to gain a fundamental understanding of our world.”

Upon graduation in the spring, he plans to pursue his PhD in systems engineering. “Physics is an excellent background and has given me a powerful analytical methodology, but I want to work on larger- scale problems,” he said.

Kellner’s research co-op was funded by a host of awards, including Champion’s National Science Foundation (NSF) International Collaboration in Chemistry award and a NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates grant sponsored by Champion. In addition, Kellner earned the 2009 Lawrence Award for excellence in undergraduate physics research, as well as a Presidential Global Scholarship and an Undergraduate Student Research grant from the provost’s office.