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Aaron Dolor

College: Macaulay Honors College | Hunter College
Awards: Jonas E. Salk Scholarship, 2012

Using Cell Fats As a Learning Tool

There’s a layer of fat that separates the interior of the cell from its environment. Its specialized zwitterionic fats, which have positive and negative electrical charges at different locations, play a critical role in determining whether molecules can get in or out of the cell, but it’s not clear precisely what mechanism they use.

Aaron Dolor (Hunter College, B.A. magna cum laude in biochemistry, minor in linguistics, 2012) won a 2013 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship by proposing a novel way of exploring how these fats function. Now a doctoral candidate at the University of California-San Francisco, Dolor suggests studying the impact of synthetic zwitterionic fats with an inverse electrical charge.

“The idea is to understand how, if you reverse the charge, it affects lipid biophysics,” he says. “That can inform our knowledge of how molecules get into cells, which is potentially important for delivering drugs in diseases like cancer and HIV. Perhaps, if you change the charge, drugs can get through the cell membrane.”

That said, Dolor has not yet decided whether to use his $126,000, three-year NSF grant – the most prestigious award for graduate study in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines – for this project. He can transfer it to other research he may choose to undertake.

As a first-year student, he is rotating through different research labs that emphasize translational research (that is, turning findings from basic research into practical applications). This spring, he is working with a group on an artificial kidney. He is focusing on developing a polymer coating that would prevent proteins from adhering to the device after it is implanted into patients.

Born in New York City and raised on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia through age 6, Dolor chose Hunter College because “it’s a favorite choice for New Yorkers.” He worked for two years as an undergraduate researcher in the laboratory of chemistry professor Charles M. Drain on organic synthesis, photophysical analysis and supramolecular assembly.

With Drain, he studied porphyrins, the iron-containing molecules found in the hemoglobin of red blood cells, the chlorophyll of plant cells and a variety of enzymes; they play an essential role in transporting oxygen, harvesting light and catalyzing oxidation. Porphyrin chemistry has potentially important applications as catalytic agents, sensors for electronic devices, dies for harvesting solar energy, fluorescent tags to track biological activities and photosensitizers for light-based cancer treatment, he explained in his successful application for a 2012 CUNY Jonas E. Salk Scholarship for graduate research.