Looking for a Way to Treat COVID-19: Reflections on a Faculty Fireside Chat with Professor Nicole Snyder

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Professor Nicole Snyder

Professor Nicole Snyder, a long-time Pioneer mentor who teaches at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, is very excited about a recent prestigious award from the Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement. Davidson was the only small liberal arts college to be funded through this award, and the honor stemmed from work that Professor Snyder has been doing on ways to deliver drugs to specifically targeted viruses. On the basis of a paper published earlier this year in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society, her research group was asked to join a cohort of scientists writing proposals for how to adapt techniques they had already developed to try to target SARS-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The grant is not only an honor, but also a challenge and an opportunity to make a significant contribution to the world’s response to the current crisis.

However, excited as she was about the award, in her talk it was clear that Professor Snyder is even more excited about her students, the process of teaching and research, and the reality that research is teamwork. This is the exact reason she is a hard-core Pioneer mentor.

The Faculty Fireside Chat was sponsored by the Alumni Relations department of Pioneer Academics, and facilitated by 2020 Pioneer Summer Scholars Danielle Lopez, Ketty Nguyen, Catherine Kwon, and Varenya Chilukuri, all from various parts of the US, and Ingrid Li from China. Ingrid and Varenya were members of Professor Snyder’s cohort this summer. Students from Pakistan, Turkmenistan, the US, China, India, Nigeria, Vietnam,Turkey, Canada, Colombia, and Cameroon attended the Zoom talk and participated in the question and answer sessions. Before Professor Snyder was introduced by the students who were working with her, Pioneer Director Matthew Jaskol welcomed her and noted that her research area is one that “crosses both biology and chemistry, which is really exciting.” “She is really invested in this idea of looking at how innovation can happen in education and in research,” he said.

The talk was divided into two sections, with a question and answer session following each. In both, it was clear that teaching is Professor Snyder’s passion, and that she is a very engaging teacher.

Screenshot Nicole Snyder firside chat 1

In the first session, Professor Snyder was asked to talk about her personal background and what led her to teaching. It was quickly apparent that her story could be the story of many of the Pioneer Scholars participating in the session. She grew up in a family without much money or education, but her parents valued education and wanted to give her every possible opportunity to further her studies. They couldn’t pay for college, but they could let her live at home and drive her to school, so she chose Westminster College, a small liberal arts college about 20 miles away from home. “It was one of the best things that happened to me in my life,” she said, and that was because of the professors who mentored her there. “They saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself, and they encouraged me. I never even thought about going to graduate school to get a PhD!”

Mentorship was a theme throughout Professor Snyder’s talk. “As a first-generation college student, I had no idea what to expect,” she said. “I really struggled with my first year,” both in college and in graduate school. At first she thought she was supposed to be able to do everything alone, but fortunately, wherever she went, she found mentors who saw her potential, pointed her to the resources she needed, and encouraged her to keep trying.

Professor Snyder knew early in her graduate studies that she wanted both to do research and to teach. Unlike working for a major corporation, “an academic career allows you to marry both. So I spend part of my time in the classroom, working with students, and part of my time in the research lab.” It was her first sabbatical experience that started her research on its present track. At the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, she met a fellow scientist who has become her research colleague, and experienced the new opportunities an international collaboration can provide. “This group is so productive because you have such a rich diversity of people approaching science from all different angles.”

For several years, until interrupted this year by the pandemic, Professor Snyder has shared this excitement with her students, taking groups from two to half a dozen to participate in research programs in Germany every summer. It’s a learning experience on many fronts. The first thing she tells them is that “they’re going to have to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable” meeting a new culture and encountering a language barrier, most of them for the first time. And that’s part of the point. “I try to take students who don’t have the means otherwise, who have not traveled to Europe, so that they have the chance to do that because it is paid for in this case by the National Science Foundation. For them, it’s really life changing.”

Professor Snyder’s research focuses on delivering drugs to targeted cells. Her skill as a teacher is evident in her ability to simplify the concepts of her very complicated work. “I’m a carbohydrate chemist,” she says. “Carbohydrates are involved in cellular communication.  They are used by different bacteria and viruses and other microbes to be able to engage with human cells.” All human cells are coated with “a very thick layer of sugars,” mixed with some proteins that allow our immune systems to recognize cells as our own rather than as invaders. Particular sugars bind particularly well to particular proteins, which bind particularly well to receptors in particular kinds of cells. So these sugars can be used to deliver drugs to particular targeted cells, for instance drugs that kill cancer cells to cancer cells in a specific location.

Although the process can be explained in a few sentences, it can take years to find the right combination of sugars, drugs, and delivery systems to develop any effective treatment. Professor Snyder’s recent research has included developing drugs that can be activated by light at specific wavelengths. When successful, these drugs can travel where needed in the human body without affecting any cells until they reach their targets. This technique is being used fairly widely now for cancer therapy. Professor Snyder and her colleagues are working on adapting it to attack bacteria and viruses, using “bio-polymers,” constructions that mimic structures the body makes naturally, to deliver the drug-laced sugars to their targets. It is this research that is being supported by the recent grant. It won’t be easy, but it is sure to be productive, because even when an experiment doesn’t work as projected, “it’s failure in that the experiment didn’t work. It’s a win in that you learn something new.”

Professor Snyder wears another hat at Davidson. As Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Research, it’s her job to allocate the finite resources to the projects requesting them. Not surprisingly, “I always try to use a student-centered approach and think about my students first and give them the resources I have in front of me,” she says. And that only begins to describe her roles. “I think of myself,” she says, “as a teacher, a scholar, an advisor, a wife, a daughter, a sister, an aunt. I wear many hats in my daily life.” To that list, her many students would undoubtedly add “mentor.”

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