Chemistry Graduate Student Amanda Cowfer describes her research and answers 20 random questions as part of the Graduate Student Spotlight series.
Amanda Cowfer is a first year graduate student who came to MIT in July of 2018 from the small farm town of Manhattan, Illinois, located in the southern suburbs of Chicago. As a recent addition to Professor Brad Pentelute‘s group, Amanda’s research uses the Pentelute group’s fully-automated continuous flow-based peptide synthesis (AFPS) to regularly synthesize full-length proteins of up to 250 amino acids. This technique bridges the gap between traditional solid-phase peptide synthesis (SPPS) and biological protein expression to enable better access to difficult proteins and peptides. Currently, the group has successfully synthesized barnase (113 AA), barstar (90 AA), HIV protease (99 AA), and their longest protein to date LFN (260 AA), to name a few.
As the subject of March 2019’s Graduate Student Spotlight, Amanda shares the activity she would like to turn into an Olympic Sport, the movies she can watch on a loop without getting sick of them, the brand she is most loyal to, and more!
- If you could turn any activity into an Olympic sport, what would you have a good chance at winning medal for?
I am pretty good at baking and cooking, and if I really honed my skills I am sure I could win some medals by feeding the judges good food.
- How did you decide to do the work you are doing now?
As a child, I always bombarded my parents with questions about anything and everything and would spend weeks researching my latest obsession and broadening my understanding of how the world works. I always wanted to find one key factor that could explain how and why everything in my life worked the way it did, and I have since learned that this is impossible.
- What is your dream car or other mode of transportation?
I actually already have my dream car back home in Illinois. It’s a ’96 Chevrolet Impala SS that my great grandmother gave to me when I was sixteen before she passed away. I hope to someday be able to restore the car to its former glory as it is a contains many memories of my grandma within it.
- If you had a personal flag, what would be on it?
My personal flag would probably have my dog Stella on it since she is a huge and very important part of my life (plus I might just be a slightly obsessed dog mom….), and the flag would definitely be blue, as blue is my favorite color.
- What movie can you watch over and over without ever getting sick of it?
I have a deep love for a set of two movies from my childhood: DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt and Joseph King of Dreams. I used to watch both of these movies with my great-grandparents, and they are some of my fondest memories of them, as I was lucky enough to grow up with them in my life, and into my teenage years. Despite not being religious I still enjoy the stories of Moses and Joseph and will still watch both of these movies in the background while I study, cook, or clean.
- What brand are you most loyal to?
Google. I have a Google phone, my apartment contains several Google homes, and I continue to buy more technology from Google as they slowly take over the world.
- Would you rather have a flying carpet or a car that can drive underwater?
I would love to be able to fly, but I think the underwater car is more compelling since there is SO MUCH underwater that remains undiscovered/untouched. I would love to see what secrets lie hidden at the bottom of the ocean.
- What toy played the biggest part in your childhood, and why?
As a child I had this stuffed inchworm (I think I actually still have it in my bedroom back home) and I used to take it everywhere with me. My Dad would do this silly inchworm song whenever I wasn’t feeling well or couldn’t sleep.
- Who are three of your favorite fictional characters?
Dr. Shawn Murphy from The Good Doctor, he’s a really great personality in the show and Freddie Highmore does an excellent job portraying a character with autism without overdoing it. I also really love Ahsoka Tano from the Star Wars the Clone Wars animated series. She is a really strong and admirable character with a rather tragic ending. Lastly, I certainly admire The Doctor from Doctor Who, and out of all of their various lives I would say the thirteenth doctor (portrayed by Jodie Whittaker) is my favorite (by a slim margin, with the tenth doctor following at a close second).
- In ancient Egypt, people were buried with the items they would need in the afterlife – what would you want buried with you so you could use it in the afterlife?
I have a deep love of music, both listening and playing an instrument, so I think I would like to be buried with my instrument, a bassoon, so that I could continue to play in the afterlife, and my computer so I could have access to all of my favorite music (ie. Spotify). I would also hope to see all of my pets in the afterlife, so I would want to also be buried with their favorite toys so that I could continue to treat them like the good boys and girls they are.
- What is special about the place you grew up?
The best thing about growing up in the middle of a farm town was the easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables grown on local farms. It’s one of the things I really miss about home, aside from my family.
- What is the most unsettling movie or TV show you’ve ever seen?
I recently watched Netflix’s documentary Abducted in Plain Sight and I still am freaked out by it since it documents a kidnapping that actually happened and the fact that such darkness exists in humanity (while unsurprising) is disturbing. I also really REALLY don’t like The Human Centipede and I had nightmares for weeks after watching it.
- What is your favorite book of all time?
Now this is a hard one. I would have to say The Book Thief. It’s a really lovely, moving book that takes place in Nazi-era Germany where a little girl steals books and teaches a Jewish individual that her family is hiding how to read. It’s a really good book, I should read again soon.
- Which is your favorite city in the world?
Out of the cities I have visited, I would say it’s a close tie between two: Leuven, Belgium and Cuzco, Peru. If I really had to choose, I would choose Leuven, Belgium because it’s a beautiful city that I could see myself living in.
- If you were given one thousand acres of land that you didn’t need to pay taxes on but couldn’t sell, what would you do with it?
If it’s located in the forest, I would probably make it into a preserve for injured wildlife to recover in, or live in permanently if release wasn’t an option. For a while that was my dream job as a kid.
- What food is delicious, but a pain to eat?
Most shellfish, including lobster and crab. Cooking shellfish is a pain because it’s really easy to under or overcook it, and then actually eating crab or lobster takes some work as you crack open each leg, etc. It’s a lot of work for very little delicious food.
- What did you think you would grow out of but haven’t?
I always thought I would grow out of my chattiness, but I have not.
- If magic was real, what spell would you try to learn first?
A teleportation spell so that I could travel the world and return home at my heart’s desire. I hate being away from my dog, but who knows, maybe I bring her with me!
- If you received a salary to follow whatever passion you wanted to, what would you do?
I would probably volunteer full-time. I take great joy in helping the people and animals in my community, and I would love to spend the rest of my life doing it. It’s a very healing and rejuvenating experience.
- What movie, picture, or video always makes you laugh no matter how often you watch it?
An extended family photo from a family reunion trip to Disney World never ceases to amuse me because of how hard it was to gather everyone (27 people) into one place to take the photo. It was like herding angry cats to get them to take a bath; quite an experience.
Many thanks to Amanda for these thoughtful answers! Stay tuned for more Graduate Student Spotlights in the months to come!