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Young genius in year two of biochemistry doctorate

January 30, 2012

She started high school at age 9 and college at 13. Now 18, Crystal Vander Zanden is in her second year of her biochemistry doctoral degree at Colorado State University, developing more effective pharmaceuticals.

Crystal Vander Zanden, who is pursuing her doctoral degree in biochemistryNot exactly the easy road for Vander Zanden, who grew up in Glendale, Ariz., and was home-schooled as a youngster.

A peer like everyone else

Still, her professors and fellow graduate students say she’s no different than her peers. Except for the part where she’s a teaching assistant for students her age and older.

“She’s doing great,” said Shing Ho, Vander Zanden's advisor and chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the College of Natural Sciences. “She gave a progress report in the fall attended by faculty and students, and unanimously, the faculty and students believe she did one of the best jobs.”

Vander Zanden is helping Ho and a team of eight scientists around the world write the official two-page definition of halogen bonds for the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, which is the Webster’s Dictionary equivalent for chemists.

An interest in biochemistry

Vander Zanden picked CSU because she was interested in the biochemistry research program but also wanted something close to home. She had to bring her mother to the interview since she was only 17 at the time.

“With my undergraduate, I did some research and I realized that’s what I wanted to do,” Vander Zanden said. “I really enjoyed science and working in the lab.”

CSU has been an easier transition than her other schools because she’s in the “college age” group, she said.

“I am mature for my age, but for the most part age hasn’t been an issue,” she said. “It’s definitely easier as I get older – these situations become easier to deal with.”

Ho agreed that “graduate students have accepted her as their peer.”

Working with Shing Ho on halogen bonds

Ho’s research group was the first in the world investigating and predicting how biological systems use halogen bonds. Halogens are a class of atoms in the periodic table that include iodine, bromine and chlorine, any of which can improve drug affinity. They’ve been misinterpreted as negatively charged compounds but they actually interact with other atoms that are electron-rich and help compounds recognize each other, Ho said.

Crystal Vander Zanden and Shing HoHalogen bonds are starting to be used to develop anti-coagulants and HIV drugs, he said. Ho recently received a three-year, $455,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop computer programs to allow scientists to use halogen bonds in drug design. He works with Anthony Rappé, a professor in CSU’s Department of Chemistry.

“We have world-class science that impacts scientists across the world,” Ho said. “We’re at forefront of integrating the fields of chemistry and biochemistry.”

Vander Zanden is helping to write those programs that will help scientists identify whether they have halogen bonds in molecular structures. She was Ho’s teaching assistant in Physical Biochemistry for undergraduates in the fall.

Megan Carter, another of Ho’s graduate students, recalls interviewing Vander Zanden and being warned that they’d be interviewing a teenager for a graduate position. Vander Zanden is so mature that Carter didn’t realize she was that candidate, she said.

“I remember talking to Crystal about the science – I didn’t think she was the young student,” Carter said. “Crystal was very comfortable with us.”

Contact: Emily Wilmsen
Phone: (970) 491-2336