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Successful Experiments

Senior earns fellowship to study biophysics at Johns Hopkins

Joshua Watts, ’22, is undeterred by a challenge. And thanks to his perseverance with undergraduate research, he’s secured a fellowship with one of the nation’s leading biophysics PhD programs.

Josh, a Bridgewater State University senior bound for Johns Hopkins University, studied how a specific protein binds to DNA, a difficult project that contributed to the quest for better cancer treatments.

“Bridgewater has had a monumental impact on my career,” said Josh, a physics and chemistry major from Brimfield. “I think Bridgewater was the best choice for me for undergrad just because of how close you can get with professors. … All the faculty have been super supportive of me.”

Josh received the Carlson Fellowship from Johns Hopkins’ Thomas C. Jenkins Department of Biophysics. The $3,000 award, which is in addition to a full scholarship and graduate stipend, reflects his academic accomplishments and promise as a researcher.

He’s already off to a strong start thanks to the interdisciplinary project at BSU focused on the protein DNA Polymerase Kappa. Josh worked under the guidance of Dr. Samer Lone to create a pure form of the protein that could be studied in Dr. Thaya Paramanathan’s single-molecule biophysics laboratory. That’s an incredibly difficult task even for graduate students.

Josh then examined how the protein (which is being studied as a target for chemotherapy treatments) binds to DNA. He worked with optical tweezers, a device BSU undergraduates built that uses lasers to trap and manipulate microscopic items such as DNA molecules. 

“Seeing Josh’s enthusiasm and the way he was very positive about this made me say, ‘Okay, let’s try this,’” said Paramanathan, an associate professor of physics. “That was the first time we studied a protein. It’s a really, really hard project for undergraduates to do.”

Josh learned techniques that Lone didn’t study until his postdoctoral years, the chemical sciences associate professor said.

“What separates him the most is his commitment and resourcefulness to get things done,” Lone said. “Josh took it to the level where he was independently discovering things and I learned something from him.”  

Josh, who presented at The Biophysical Society’s annual meeting in California, hopes future BSU students will build on the preliminary data he’s gathered. He appreciates the strong sense of community in the Bartlett College of Science and Mathematics.

“I think it’s very special,” he said. “I’ve grown really close with a lot of people in the lab. We get to learn together and teach each other and get to do a lot outside the lab.”

Though he’s unsure if he will pursue a career in industry or academia, Josh is confident he is ready for Johns Hopkins and a future in biophysics.

“You get to uncover all the secrets of life,” he said. 

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