Summer Research Snapshot: Graduate Student Leslie Rank

When you imagine Madison in the summer, it’s easy to think of a beautiful sunset at the Terrace, a picnic at Concerts on the Square, or a leisurely morning at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, filled with spicy cheese bread. But what many people might not know is that research on campus gears up over the summer.

This week, we begin a series of snapshots of life in the UW-Madison Department of Chemistry during the summer. Each Friday in August, we will feature an interview with a student or postdoc in the department, showing what life is like during the summer for a researcher.

Leslie Rank is a rising fifth-year chemistry graduate student in the Gellman group. Her research focuses on designing and developing polymers as antimicrobial agents.

Q: Tell me a bit about your research.

LR: I focus on designing and developing nylon 3 polymers — or sequence random poly beta peptides — for antimicrobial properties. These polymers are amphiphilic, containing hydrophobic and cationic subunits. Amphiphathicity is hypothesized to be essential for the antimicrobial activity of these polymers; electrostatic interactions attract polymers to biomembranes, allowing for hydrophobic subunits to insert into membranes and cause cell lysis. So we’re trying to understand how our polymers are selective for microbial cells versus human cells or other host cells and also trying to further increase the potency of the polymers.

Q: What does a typical summer day look like for you?

LR: The summer is actually an interesting time. I think a lot of people have a mindset that without classes and without teaching and without seminars, you have a lot more time and a more flexible schedule. But in that regards, you almost set higher expectations with what you expect to accomplish. You’re also trying to juggle vacations or visiting family. I always feel like I’m going to get a lot more done than I actually do. So, to me, summer is probably the busiest time of the entire year.

Q: Do your day-to-day duties change? What are you doing today?

LR: My day varies all the time. One day I will be in Microbiology or Biochemistry running actual inhibitory assays. Another day I will be at my bench or in the hood trying to synthesize new monomers. Another day will be characterization of polymers or making polymers in the glovebox. Other days I’m stuck at my desk. And today is one of those days where I am going to be anchored to my desk.

Q: What’s on the docket for today?

LR: This morning, I had to submit my proofs for my manuscript, so that was done.

—NT: Congratulations!

LR: Thank you! I’m working on my lab notebook and I’m also trying to work on another manuscript. Lots of writing. I have deadlines that I’ve set for myself to get things sent out to PIs to check and I’m trying to stick to that.

Q: Do you feel like you accomplish more during the summer?

LR: No, I would say my productivity levels are relatively consistent throughout the year but I don’t have teaching or classes at the moment. I feel like in the summer, I set kind of large goals that I’d like to accomplish. And sometimes the goals are accomplished and other times the goals need to be readjusted because you realize that the science isn’t working and needs to move in a new direction.

Q: What do you enjoy doing outside of lab?

LR: I’m kind of a drifter, in that I’m not involved in a particular sport, I’m not involved in any clubs. What I do mostly is hang out with friends and do whatever activities they’re doing. I love being outside, so often I am outside going for walks or runs. I like to look at all the nice houses around Madison, walk by the lakes, or bike ride.

Q: Are you looking forward to any activities the department does during the summer?

LR: One thing that’s been really nice that we’ve started to do this year are these GSFLC Summer Social Hours that occur out on what we call the “grassy area” behind the Chemistry Building, we need a better name for that. And those have been really enjoyable. Towards the end of summer, we also have the path picnics that are fun to go to. So there are a lot of opportunities to mingle with other people in the department.

—Nicole Thomas