Most people wouldn’t see a direct line between working on tractors in rural Washington State and working on a DNA repair enzyme that functions to prevent cancer in humans.
But that’s the unlikely trajectory of Payton Utzman BS’22 who after graduating from the School of Biological Sciences headed off to join Nabla Bio at a 15,000-square-foot state-of-the-art wet laboratory and co-working space for high-potential biotech and life science ventures at Harvard University.
“We are a small team of nine scientists,” says Utzman, “working to synthesize therapeutic antibodies that are designed by artificial intelligence. It has been an amazing experience so far learning so many new skills and applying my undergraduate research experience in such a useful way.”
Granted, it wasn’t a just a bounce from the spring seat of a John Deere tractor in Pullman, WA to Boston. But Utzman’s mechanically-oriented mind found a formidably gratifying corollary in biochemistry and structural biology in the Horvath lab. “I spent my childhood weekends helping my father and grandfather maintain various tractors and machinery. By the time I graduated high school, I was a self-taught mechanic, having restored an old pickup and rebuilding the engine through the guidance of a manual,” he remembers. “When I was exposed to the microscopic world of proteins, I was amazed by the enzymatic function of these biological machines. The elegant and candid relationship between the structure of a protein structure and its corresponding function resembled my understanding of how metal parts assembled into an engine can produce incredible amounts of power. I was then intrigued to learn more about the world of proteins and motivated to join Dr. Horvath’s research team in learning a protein mechanistically functions to repair DNA.”
In addition to making discoveries in DNA repair, the Horvath Lab, headed up by principal investigator and SBS Associate Professor Martin Horvath, applies structural methods and biochemistry to make discoveries in Chronic Neuropathic Pain that may lead to the use of non-opioid drugs. For the DNA repair project the lab studies the atomic resolution structure of MutY, [a human gene that encodes a DNA glycosylase], to understand how this enzyme recognizes and removes Adenine in OG:A base pairs.”
Says Utzman, “to better understand the mechanism of MutY, we are interested in learning about the evolution of this enzyme over millions of years. This led us to studying MutY enzymes from microbes at The Lost City Hydrothermal Field, a site similar to conditions in which life may have been conceived on Earth.” Samples from the Lost City have been collected by another SBS professor William “Billy” Brazelton, a unique partnership with marine biology and the unique mineral structures at the bottom of the Mid-Atlantic.
From these samples containing MutY-encoding genes, Utzman and his colleagues were excited to locate microbes that survive off of energy created from a geochemical reaction involving rocks and water, one of the discoveries that would lead to a better understanding of the nature of cancer.
“One of the most valuable assets of the University of Utah is the large amount of cutting-edge research occurring on campus,” says Utzman of his four years in Utah and his seven semesters as a teaching assistant. “I am so thankful for the research opportunities given to me by the U which have paved the way for me to actually have an impact on treating disease and impacting lives.”
Since exchanging leather work gloves in rural America for the rubber-gloved hands of the science researcher, Utzman has learned how to think critically and solve difficult problems. “I am passionate about getting kids interested in science and showing the amazing problems we can solve by blending scientific disciplines with creativity.”
Pursuant to that interest, Utzman worked together with other dedicated STEM students at the U to found the student-led STEM Tutoring program at the U to provide free tutoring to high school students in the greater Salt Lake City area. Not surprisingly, Utzman believes that the future of medicine is molecular. And while his professional ambition is to continue studying the function of proteins to one day help develop therapeutics to treat disease, he is also driven to outreach–both in elevating the uninitiated to the scientific method (and critical thinking) and in science communication for the public.
The U graduate is quick to reference Dr. Anthony Fauci, the physician-scientist and immunologist serving as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Chief Medical Advisor to the President. During the past three years the young scientist saw Fauci as the country’s undisputed spirit guide through the coronavirus pandemic. “His perseverance to help people and communicate scientific truth is inspiring,” says Utzman who finds the short-statured but brilliant (and reportedly fit) octogenarian as his “hero.”
For Utzman, the greatest advice he can give up-and-coming scientists at the U and elsewhere, is to learn how to learn. “The pandemic was a difficult time for all of us, and it was devastating that the virus affected so many lives. I think one of the biggest take-aways from the pandemic was the importance of scientific research and clear communication with the public. My advice for other students would be to learn how to read and to understand research publications.”
Embedded now in the next chapter of his life, Utzman has secured an excellent foundation. The Beta Theta Pi was a two-time Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) Scholar, an SBS Research Scholar in 2021 and recipient of the Continuing Student School Scholarship in 2020. Additionally, he was lead author of a paper published in the University of Utah Undergraduate Research Journal.
Though far from the farm fields outside Pullman, Washington, the grease monkey in Utzman apparently is forever. He says that despite long days at the bench studying that “elegant and candid relationship between the structure of a protein structure and its corresponding function” he can still become absorbed by those other metal parts, the ones in trucks and motorcycles that coalesce so intricately–those other machines that can kick out a lot of power, but on the level of a combustion engine.
And this just in from Beantown: Payton Utzman is working on yet another engine–training for the Boston Marathon.
At age 81, Dr. Fauci–known to “kill it” on the treadmill at the gym–would be proud.
You can watch Payton Utzman’s 2020 PointPoint and discussion on his research titled “A Structural Analysis of the LC MutY Metagenome” here.
By David Pace
SBS regularly sends its undergraduate students into the lab and the field to do research their very first semester. You can support undergraduate research like Payton’s by donating to the Science Research Initiative here.