NMC Scientist Rex Hjelm Outreach Mentoring Graduate Student Jacob Belchak Leads to Appointment at ORNL

NMC Scientist Rex Hjelm Outreach Mentoring Graduate Student Jacob Belchak Leads to Appointment at ORNL

NMC Scientist Rex Hjelm Outreach Mentoring Graduate Student Jacob Belchak Leads to Appointment at ORNL

Congratulations to Jacob Belchak, who has recently been accepted to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) Neutron Scattering Graduate Research Program! Jacob is a graduate student mentored by New Mexico Consortium scientist Rex Hjelm and Gabriel Lopez, a University of New Mexico professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

As a part of outreach efforts, NMC scientist, Hjelm, has been acting as a mentor to Jacob and will be on his graduate committee. Hjelm’s role has been to tutor Jacob in the theory and methods associated with scattering and other biophysical characterizations, and he also assisted in designing experiments and analysis procedures. Hjelm also helped Jacob write the successfully funded proposals for beam time and his residency at ORNL, which is needed for his dissertation research.

In this appointment Jacob will be funded for an internship at SNS/HFIR & CNMS for research in the interactions of nucleic acids with chimeric intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs).

Jacob’s dissertation research consists of studying IDPs, which are ubiquitous, naturally occurring proteins that can act as nucleic acid chaperones and which aid in the folding and packaging of DNA and RNA to efficiently bind and regulate their function as nucleoproteins (NPs), facilitate the assembly of membraneless organelles, like the nucleolus, and work as packaging agents for RNAs in viral nucleocapsids.

Under funding from the National Science Foundation, Lopez and his team, in collaboration with David Peabody, Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at UNM, have successfully engineered an IDP formed from an elastin-like domain fused to a chaperone-like domain derived from the core protein of the Hepatitis C virus. The construct acts as a smart nucleic acid chaperone (SNAC) that contains the two biological functions of interest: core protein catalytic activity and the liquid-liquid phase separation (coacervation) of the elastin-like protein. SNACs enable technologies for rapid isolation and detection of viral NAs, the need for which was clearly demonstrated during the recent pandemic. NA chaperoning is a process that facilitates sterically and kinetically unfavored molecular processes that likely involve multiple complex steps. 

Jacob will test the hypothesis that the SNAC’s chaperoning ability facilitates one such step, the partial melting of a single-stranded hairpin DNA (sshDNA) to “unzip” it into a Y-shape, providing toeholds to initiate the hybridization process between complementary nucleic acids.

At ORNL, Jacob will apply neutron and x-ray scattering techniques along with other biophysical characterizations to understand the processes leading to NA chaperoning.

The residency will allow him access facilities that are not available at UNM and work with and learn from other experts in his research program.


Top image of Jacob Belchak who has recently been accepted to the ORNL Neutron Scattering Graduate Research Program.