Julia Montgomery, a doctoral student in the Department of Biochemistry from Manorville, New York, has been selected for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program in 2021.

The fellowship program is the country’s oldest in support of doctoral and master’s students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. It aims to recognize and empower the next generation of knowledge experts who can contribute in meaningful ways to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering.

“The NSF [Graduate Research Fellowship Program] is a prestigious fellowship that means a lot to a first-generation college and graduate student like me,” Montgomery said. “It is validation that the work that I am doing is important and that my experiences give me a unique and important perspective as a researcher.”

Her work will involve research that could lead to the development of drugs that treat asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – a subject she knows all too well.  

Montgomery initially became interested in health and science because of her grandmother, who was diagnosed with COPD before Montgomery was born and who she cared for during her childhood. She was originally on track to go to veterinary school, but Montgomery found herself becoming interested in the biochemical context behind why her furry patients were sick and sought out research opportunities to further explore this interest.

After applying to the biochemistry graduate program at Virginia Tech, Montgomery was amazed by Justin Lemkul’s lab and the power of molecular simulations. She was fascinated with the idea of using computer-aided drug design to help improve and provide more efficient therapeutics for the people who need them.

“Julia is well-deserving of this award and poised to do great things in her dissertation research in our department,” said Glenda Gillaspy, professor and department head of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Montgomery will focus her fellowship work on studying the dynamics of membranes and the molecules that interact with them. Her project specifically focuses on the beta-2 adrenergic receptor, a membrane receptor that is typically targeted by drugs that treat asthma and COPD. Montgomery hopes to understand this receptor from a new perspective to formulate new rationales in drug development for receptors in the same family. 

Justin Lemkul, Virginia Tech Biochemistry Assistant Professor, and Julia Montgomery, Virginia Tech Biochemistry Graduate Student, sit and look at 3D printed model of a protein
The Lemkul Lab uses computer modeling and simulation methods to understand biomolecular conformational change, disease mechanisms, and to carry out computer-aided drug design. Photo by Cameron Warren.

The beta-2 adrenergic receptor is a part of a family that represents 30 percent of targets for current FDA-approved drugs. Understanding how the receptor works is important for more effective and targeted drug design and using computational biochemistry to approach scientific questions allows researchers to look at drug targets in a completely new way. Montgomery’s research could provide information to potentially streamline the drug design process. 

Montgomery is working alongside her advisor, Lemkul, assistant professor of biochemistry, to use computers to simulate this membrane receptor at an atomistic scale to understand how it binds drugs and subsequently changes its shape, altering its activity.

“Julia’s proposal was really remarkable, in the sense that she thought of a completely new way to investigate a somewhat ‘old’ system that scientists have studied for decades,” said Lemkul. “Her hypothesis that subtle changes in specific parts of the protein may impact its entire activity is really exciting. It is exactly this type of novel thinking that merited the prestigious award she received.”

Montgomery and Lemkul use a physical model, also known as a force field, to describe how atoms in a simulation interact. The force field that the Lemkul Lab uses is specially equipped for the study of the electronic environment of the cell membrane. With this force field, the researchers will be able to view and quantify structural changes of the beta-2 adrenergic receptor in a novel way and gain a more complete understanding of how the receptor works.

As part of her outreach with the NSF GRFP, Montgomery intends to host a workshop at her undergraduate institution on how to apply to graduate school and the potentials of working as a researcher, so that future students can be informed about opportunities in graduate education and research. 

“I want to help students transition into researchers and achieve goals they might not have realized were even possible,” Montgomery said.

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