Michael HernandezMichael Hernandez

Ph.D. (4th. year), Chemical and Biological Engineering

Year in graduate program:6th year (September 2005)
Research Topic:Biomolecular Diagnostics
Partner School:Ronald Edmonds Learning Center M.S. 113 / I.S. 318 Eugenio Maria De Hostos
Partner Teacher:Jeffrey Prince / Russ Holstein
Email Michael


Under the guidance of Prof. Jin Ryoun Kim, Michael is developing a peptide probe for the rapid detection of toxic alpha synuclein aggregates. Alpha synuclein aggregate species are known to play a key role in the pathogenesis of Parkinson's disease. However, there is much uncertainty surrounding which aggregate species is toxic. This substantiates the need for a peptide probe capable of distinguishing between the different aggregate species so that this recurring toxicity question can be addressed. Michael's probe would act as a biosensor, incorporating a functional coupling between recognition and signaling upon detection of alpha synuclein aggregates. Current detection methods, which require additional sample preparation steps during which these alpha synuclein aggregates may undergo significant conformational changes, could lead to erroneous results. At present, there are no methods which allow for rapid detection. Much effort has been spent in analyzing the structure of these alpha synuclein aggregates, of which the formation of a β-sheet structure is known to be critical. While most of the current research and focus revolves around this β-sheet structure, the linker region connecting two β-sheets has not been examined. Michael's research centers on varying this linker region in terms of conformation and flexibility and analyzing the effect that these changes have on aggregation behavior. Preliminary results, where aggregation behavior was modulated, have already been presented at an AIChE meeting in the fall of 2008.

Image description

Figure: NSF GK-12 Fellow, Michael Hernandez, prepares a protein sample for structural analysis. Secondary structure configuration of certain proteins plays a key role in the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson's disease. Detection and signaling of these structural transitions is the focus of Michael's Ph.D. research.

Integration in The Class Room

Michael integrates his research in a 7th grade Technology class via robotics demonstrations. For example, students are presented with a variety of sensors as they learn about their basic functions. In addition to identifying everyday sensors, students are introduced to the three components of a biosensor, which is a special type of sensor. This knowledge is then utilized by the students to identify various organs in the body which behave as sensors, such as the pancreas. The pancreas regulates the level of glucose in the blood by excreting hormones. Malfunction of the pancreas leads to diabetes. The connection with Michael's research is made when establishing how the pancreas regulates the level of blood glucose by producing insulin. Similarly, Michael's protein probe selectively detects alpha synuclein aggregate species and gives off a fluorescent signal. Through these demonstrations, strong connections between biotechnology and sensors seen in the everyday world are made which heightens students' interest in STEM subjects.

Image description

Figure: MS113 students perform an activity using the light sensor included in the LEGO Mindstorms kit to calculate gravitational acceleration.

1 - AMPS Fellow; 2 - CBRI Fellow