More than skin deep

In March 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe and shut everything down, Catalin “Sean” Chung ’22 started a new job in the lab of Elena Oancea, PhD, professor of medical science, as a mouse technician. 

In that role, Chung’s responsibilities included setting up matings, weaning mice from their mothers, genotyping litters, and treating illnesses, and he was able to maintain his job on campus through the shutdown. But the economics and biology double concentrator soon became interested in the role of the rodents in Oancea’s research, and began to seek opportunities in her lab that went beyond animal care.  

Chung, who’s from East Orleans, MA, applied for an Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award (UTRA), a monetary award that would cover some of the costs of staying in Providence for the summer while he pursued his newfound interest in research.

At first, Chung was going to participate in one of several ongoing projects in the Oancea lab related to human skin. However, in previous work, the lab discovered that a protein in the light-responding receptor family, called Opsin 3 (OPN3), was found not only in skin, but also in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain involved in metabolism.

“It started out as a skin-type project in which we just followed the protein,” Chung says. “And as we followed it deep into the brain, that’s where my project started. If you take that one protein and look at its immediate neighbors, it can really take you on a fascinating journey.”

So, Chung and his graduate student mentor, Hala Haddad PhD’23, changed course to further examine why OPN3 is in that part of the brain and what role it plays.

“Sean has been instrumental in carrying out behavioral experiments to see whether mice with depleted OPN3 proteins have any changes in body weight and eating habits,” says Haddad, a doctoral candidate in neuroscience. “He has taken on responsibility in learning molecular biology and cell biology techniques to ask detailed questions about if and how the Opsin 3 protein interacts with other proteins and ion channels.”

Chung and Haddad found that OPN3 likely binds with, and alters, its neighbor, the melanocortin 4 receptor (MC4R), which is already known to be highly involved in metabolism and food intake. Their findings suggest OPN3 plays an important role in this function, too.

“It’s one thing to sit in a lecture and take notes,” Chung says. “But it’s another to be hands-on and able to figure out why something is or is not working. This summer research opportunity enabled me to concentrate just on this project, so I could spend a lot of time thinking about it without any distractions.”

Mentoring is a key component to the UTRA summer research projects. Haddad and Chung worked together to discuss methods, design experiments, and present techniques that they used to evaluate body weight and food intake.

“It has been amazing mentoring Sean and seeing him develop into a motivated and ambitious scientist,” Haddad says. “He has learned and perfected very challenging scientific techniques, as well as developed his critical thinking skills – all which will be very beneficial for any career option he chooses after graduation.”

Chung is excited to continue working on this project as an independent study in his final semesters at Brown, and to follow the basic science trail wherever it may lead him.