Puzzling the Connections


Patrick Ginther ’17 finds questions, answers, and connections in the enormous and ever-changing puzzle that is the field of biochemistry.

When he was young, Patrick Ginther ’17 asked so many questions that whenever he and his father were driving someplace, his dad imposed “The Rule of 10”—he could ask 10 questions, “otherwise I would just ask too many.” He’s a little older now, but his intense curiosity has only grown with him. And it’s that, coupled with his penchant for puzzles and dedication to his work, that has led him to the cusp of a career in biochemistry that is poised to unlock riddles of the human system.

Ginther, a double major in chemistry and biology with concentrations in biochemistry and organic and medicinal chemistry, has spent the past two summers conducting research with James Lipchock, assistant professor of chemistry. The two have been working at the Yale University Department of Chemistry lab of J. Patrick Loria, a professor of chemistry and molecular biophysics and biochemistry, on Lipchock’s ongoing research into the human enzyme protein tyrosine phosphatase 1B (PTP1B).

The research has enabled Ginther to co-author two published papers with Lipchock and others, and as of this spring, he’s been accepted with full-tuition scholarships to graduate school at Yale’s chemistry department, the biological and biomedical sciences program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. He has until mid-April to decide, which, he reckons, “is a great problem to have, to have to choose between all such great institutions.”

Ginther’s interest in biochemistry began in his junior year of high school, when he took chemistry after taking biology his sophomore year. He began to see the connections between the two, and AP biology in his senior year solidified those connections. During his freshman year at Washington College he took gen bio and gen chem, which he enjoyed so much he still couldn’t choose between the two majors, so he stuck with both. Chemistry remains his favorite, though. 

“I just tend to visualize things a lot better on the molecular level than the grand scheme of how the body works,” he says. Also, there are the puzzles. “I really do like puzzles, and one thing I like about chemistry is it really does make everything a puzzle… If you mix Powerade with Sprite—which is one of my favorite drinks—you sometimes get a fine film on top of like this white stuff, and that’s actually calcium phosphate salting out, because there’s calcium ions in the Powerade and then the acid in the soda reacts to form a salt. Stuff like that. It allows you to explain a whole lot of cool things that you might not think of. And it’s one of my favorite reasons why I study chemistry. It’s just very fascinating.”

During his first year with the Summer Research Program, between his sophomore and junior years, he honed his lab skills working with the protein Lipchock studies, “harvesting it, getting the cells to express it so we could harvest it, and then actually producing data with the protein.” In the second summer, Lipchock encouraged him to use a technique called crystallography to crystalize the protein and study its structure via electron density.

“This was something that he’s never done, and I’d never done,” he says. “So it was an interesting experience the second year from the first year, because I was on a little more equal playing field with Dr. Lipchock in that regard since we were both exploring this research we had never done before.”

Both summers, he says, gave him a clear view of how a graduate laboratory works, which helped him confirm that grad school was the right path for him.

“The lab consisted of three graduate students and a few post-docs, and both summers I worked pretty closely with one of the graduate students,” he says. He was the only undergraduate in the lab during the second summer, but he says he always felt he could hold his own, largely because of the prep work Lipchock did with him before they headed to Yale. Similarly, he felt more than prepared during graduate school interviews, and feels that Washington College’s small size and intense mentoring have given him a clear advantage.

“A lot of the students who went to larger institutions with big names, they have the big name to back them up but they’re in classes of 50, 60, all the way up to 500 students,” Ginther says. “The education here is so individualized and is catered to you. We get something that they don’t get at those other larger institutions, and that is one-on-one interactions with the professor and personalized educations.”

Although his work at Yale was through the College’s Summer Research Program, his housing was funded through a grant from the Cater Society of Junior Fellows, of which he is a member. He’s also an RA, a tutor for organic chemistry, general chemistry, and general and cell biology, and he’s a course mentor for organic chemistry and does lab prep for the organic chemistry labs. He’s president of the College’s chapters of the American Chemical Society and Gamma Sigma Epsilon, the national chemistry honors society.

Ginther’s not clear yet on what happens after grad school—either a career in teaching, working in the pharmaceutical industry, or conducting medically related research in a government agency like the National Institutes of Health. There’s no doubt, however, that he will puzzle it out.