Senior’s NASA Internship Results in Published Paper

If there is one thing Loyola Marymount University chemistry major John Colin Richards learned from his summer 2019 internship in a NASA-sponsored program, it is that science in the real world is extremely difficult and “pretty cool.”

The senior from north Idaho spent three months in Atlanta, GA. as a participant in NASA’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. He conducted research at NASA’s Center for the Origin of Life at Georgia Tech.

“Science is really interesting in that when you’re in the classroom you study all these things, learn the mechanisms, take an exam and you’re expected to know the answers. But once you apply this to the real world you realize you don’t know everything,” said Richards. “It was a transformative experience to realize the techniques I’ve learned helped me to find the answers myself.”

His adviser, Jeremy McCallum, chair and professor of chemistry and biochemistry, urged him to apply for a summer internship. “It turned out to be perfect,” said McCallum. “I think for every kid in science, it’s their dream to work for NASA.”

Richards took full advantage of the experience. His research involved working in Dr. Loren Williams’ lab looking at the evolution of the ribosome – the biological macromolecule the Williams lab believes is responsible for the origins of life on Earth. Specifically, he looked into the role G-quadruplexes, secondary structures formed in nucleic acids, play in the function of the ribosome. The work led to a paper, later published in December in PLoS One, bearing Richards’ name which is a rare accomplishment for REU participants.

“The REU faculty told us that in eight years of the program, very few students have been published,” said Richards. “I didn’t expect it, but I had hope. Science is tricky, most experiments you try don’t work out the first time around. About every experiment of mine did. I got super lucky.”

He credits his four years at LMU’s Seaver College of Science and Engineering in giving him the tools to succeed.

“LMU’s facilities are incredible, and how they make research available to undergrads is exceptional,” said Richards. “We have the resources here to allow undergrads to thrive.”

Richards is currently leading a research project at LMU on G-quadruplexes and their possible role in cancer. He is pondering his future, which may include graduate school or employment. Whichever path he chooses, he knows he will graduate LMU with solid research skills and fond memories.

When asked where he would like to go next, whether that be back to his hometown of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho or remain in Southern California, Richards said “I love Idaho, but in LA there is so much to do every day. I’ve made tons of lifelong friends here. I’m just looking to go wherever there is opportunity.”