The NMR Training Internship Program: Mapping Molecules with Magnets
If you ever have had the chance to visit the basement of SBASSE, you may have glanced upon what looks akin to a gleaming white spaceship standing proudly with an air of futuristic appeal. And though the words ‘Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Spectrometer’ may seem a mouthful to speak, it is in truth a fundamental piece of technology that is pioneering research and development across a multitude of disciplines.
The NMR Spectrometer Lab at LUMS is a state-of-the-art facility, being the first of its kind in the region, and boasts a miraculous machine capable of probing nuclear spins to determine molecular architecture (imagine an atomic ballet, choreographed by the forces of magnetism). It has not only enabled the instant identification of the structural characteristics of compounds but has also shed light on the vast network of interactions involved at an atomic level. For instance, the discovery of a therapeutic drug extracted from cloves against Dengue virus by students at the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, or the anti-viral activities of a protein engineered at the Department of Biology last year, is but a small demonstration of the promising potential of employing NMR studies.
Recently, two undergraduate SBASSE students received the proverbial Golden Ticket to gaining a hands-on experience through a ten-week long NMR Training Internship Program organized by the Department of Biology. Muhammad Azhan (BS Chemistry) and Wahaj Ayub (BS Physics) participated in learning the intricate technicalities of the NMR instrumentation. From sample preparation to data visualization, the apprenticeship was a whirlwind of activities and rigorous training, fostering a proactive involvement by the interns.
The internship was a great way to delve deeper into exploring the specifics of the spectrometer and its associated equipment, ultimately bringing out a practical perspective to theoretical knowledge. During the duration of the training, the students learnt about safety precautions for proper handling of the machine, operated sophisticated software (such as TopSpin), and ran various NMR techniques; (if Heteronuclear Single Quantum Coherence, (HSQC) or Correlation Spectroscopy (COSY) has you scratching your head in confusion, fear not. Such methods simply help to reveal the arrangement of interacting particles – sort of like a Google Map of their location). The two apprentices also expertly calibrated parameters predicted and interpreted spectral data.
For Wahaj, the internship was an exciting prospect of seeing a topic in a Physics course that he had merely read in passing, come to life before his very eyes. When contacted for a short interview, he also shared how he felt intimidated the first time he saw the gigantic NMR machine – expensive and extremely fragile – but gradually came to appreciate the technology when it would seamlessly react to the input commands. Learning, he exclaims, is especially nice when it is outside of the classroom environment and pressure. Rising to the task of becoming proficient at something new, he is hopeful that similar opportunities would be available for students in the future. He was, however, constantly afraid of breaking one thing or the other. He also highlighted how the biggest challenge for him was navigating through the internship in times of the COVID-19 lockdown, and he is sorry that part of it was left incomplete as they had to cut it short. Wahaj is utterly grateful to Dr. Muhammad Adil Raees (NMR Facility Manager) and wishes to thank him again for the kind help throughout the apprenticeship.
Answering the question of how he first came to pursue Chemistry, Muhammad Azhan explained that the concept of ‘Learning Without Borders’ at LUMS, whereby freshmen partake in various SBASSE core courses before declaring their major, lent him exposure to diverse disciplines. Taking a CHEM-101 class by Dr. Habib-ur-Rehman was the turning point in taking up this field in order to unravel the ‘mystery of matter’ and contribute to solving threats of global warming, energy crisis, pollution, and resource scarcity. In his correspondence, he also mentioned that he has been enthralled by the likes of Dr. Muhammad Abdus Salam, Dr. Irshad Hussain and Dr. Basit Yameen for building scientific curiosity and igniting his interest. He found the internship program to be tremendously unique and rewarding, and one that cultivated critical thinking along with inquisitiveness. It also equipped him with the technical expertise that proved immensely valuable in his quest to pursue higher education. He is honored to be part of this enlightening experience.
When asked if there was anything that could be done to improve the internship, both Wahaj and Azhan believe that the development of a manual or a handout to incorporate all the learning material would help make the initiation process easier for the interns.
After getting in touch with Dr. Muhammad Adil Raees, the NMR Facility Manager, he gave an account of how his research involves the isolation of natural products from medicinal plants and their structural characterization using both NMR and mass spectroscopic techniques. He further described how a three-month long internship at the NMR facility at the University of Karachi sparked his interest for the first time, and that even after ten years of working with this marvellous machine how each day is replete with the surprise of uncovering the veiled through the eye of the NMR. When questioned about the favorite aspect of his work, he conveyed that it was supervising and supporting the operation of the NMR laboratory as well as aiding students to run experiments with the spectrometer. While working with NMR is technically demanding of expertise, experience, and knowledge for proper upkeep, he proudly exclaimed that they have successfully maintained this facility ever since its induction and strive to continue doing so. In the very near future, he wishes for students and researchers from other institutes to also have the opportunity to inculcate this instrument in their work in order to not only improve the education standards of Pakistan, but to also establish quality research in areas of structural biology, drug discovery, vaccine development, metabolomics, and synthetic chemistry.
In an interview with Dr. Syed Shahzad-ul-Hussan, an Associate Professor at the Department of Biology and part of the NMR core team, he expressed that he had had a great time supervising the keen interns during their training. He explained that he initially came across the NMR spectroscopy during his MPhil and later during his PhD in Bio-organic Chemistry at the University of Luebeck, Germany, where his advisor encouraged his interest in discovering answers on the atomic level. He fondly remembers how deeply engrossed he was in trying to solve the structure of a protein during his Postdoc, that his supervisor would come in the evening to say, "Go home now!", because 15-16 hours would have passed without Dr. Shahzad noticing. And this is exactly what he loves about his work – discovering the structural basis of a biological process because it gives a real picture. Using the NMR has been such an exceptional experience that it has become an integral part of his career. His research centres around drug discovery against viruses and comprehending the cross talk between viruses and the human immune system to subsequently obtain the necessary information for designing vaccines. He elucidated that NMR spectroscopy is crucial for this in several ways: to identify new molecules from nature as potential antiviral agents, to determine the structure of such compounds, to study the atomic level interactions between the drug and its viral target and then to further optimize their efficacy, and besides this, the structural and dynamic studies of protein and glycans can also aid in answering important biological questions of molecular recognition.
So, the next time you come across the NMR spectrometer, I hope you find to it to be a glorious example of human ingenuity and innovation; with each piece of data bringing clarity to the jigsaw puzzle of scientific questions and conundrums, and that this remarkable contraption inspires you to join the NMR bandwagon.
This story is submitted by Sitara Hassan belongs from the first cohort of the Carl Sagan Write-for-Science initiative taken by the Dean's Office Science Communication Cell at SBASSE, she is also working as a Research Assistant at the Department of Biology.