In 2008, Natalie Omattage, ’12—then a high schooler—won the top award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, designating her as an Intel Young Scientist scholar and a Department of Homeland Security fellow.
Not to mention that as the winner of the fair, Omattage had a minor planet, 24517 Omattage, named after her. But that was just the beginning of her scientific pursuits.
This spring, Omattage, a biochemistry and molecular biology major, completed research to solve the protein structure of the enzyme responsible for DNA replication, DNA Polymerase I. She worked with the Argonne National Laboratory, one of the U.S. Department of Energy's oldest and largest national laboratories for science and engineering research.
But Omattage didn’t need to travel to the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago; she was given the permission to control all of the instruments from Richmond. She collected X-ray diffraction patterns using tunable X-rays from the Advanced Photon Source, a particle accelerator that whizzes electrons around a 1.1-kilometer ring at more than 99.999999 percent of the speed of light. To reserve time using the accelerator, Omattage had to apply months in advance.
“It was an incredible experience,” she said. “Not only was I able to control equipment from the computer in our lab hundreds of miles away, but I was also able to utilize a resource that not many undergraduates or even graduate students have the opportunity to use. It is quite rare for an undergraduate researcher to delve into techniques such as X-ray crystallography, so I am extremely lucky that I had the opportunity to do so.”
Omattage has been working in Eugene Wu’s lab in the department of biology. She said she found an amazing mentor in Wu.
“He has certainly molded me as a budding research scientist,” she said. “He continually guided and encouraged me, and has allowed me to become an independent thinker, which is quite important in scientific research.”
Wu said he was pleased with Omattage’s achievements and her interdisciplinary approach to science. The pair is working together on writing a manuscript describing their work combining biochemistry and structural biology.
“It was because of her lack of fear of math and physics that I asked her to tackle a project using chemistry, math, and physics to model the three-dimensional atomic structure of an enzyme that copies DNA,” Wu said. “Not only has Natalie successfully grown crystals of an enzyme that copies DNA and analyzed its atomic structure, she has performed important experiments testing its ability to proofread its own work as it copies DNA.”
Aside from her recent research project on DNA replication, Omattage has been working with an interdisciplinary group in the department of physics for Undergraduates in Biological Mathematics (UBM). With faculty mentors Ovidiu Lipan and Laura Runyen-Janecky, the group studied the heat stress response in mammalian cells and recently published a paper in BMC Biophysics titled, “Sensing the Heat Stress in Mammalian Cells.”
Omattage’s inspiration to study the sciences came from her father, who is also a research scientist. She plans to continue her pursuit of her passion after college by combining her interests in microbial pathogenesis and structural biology in graduate school.
“As a research scientist,” she said, “I hope to study microbial pathogenesis from a structural standpoint so that pathogens can be targeted through vaccine and drug development.”
Originally printed in the spring 2012 issue of Artes Liberales.