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John Barr Bound for Princeton

John Barr ’16 knew in high school that he wanted to study chemistry, and from the moment he set foot on the Moravian College Campus, he set his sights on getting his PhD. This fall, the new grad will be heading to Princeton University to begin a PhD program in physical chemistry—the study of why molecules behave the way they do, explains Barr. Specifically, he will begin work with professor of chemistry Herschel Rabitz on quantum control theory, the study of manipulating systems (in this case chemical systems) that follow the laws of quantum mechanics. Daunting for most but not Barr. Difficult questions don’t intimidate him, they intrigue him. They are what draw him to science and math and ignite his passion for chemistry.

That passion has produced remarkable results. Barr has worked through a chain of research projects, beginning with an independent study, followed by a SOAR project, and culminating in an honors project all building on research into how proteins fold.

Inside our bodies, amino acids are linked together to form proteins, which have biological functions. “In order for proteins to do what they’re supposed to do, not only do the amino acids have to be linked in the right order, but the protein molecule needs to take a certain shape, which occurs through folding,” explains Barr. “Sometimes they mis-fold. For example, with Alzheimer’s disease, when amyloid beta proteins mis-fold, they form plaque.”

“We’re pretty good at figuring out the shape of folded proteins, but we don’t know very much about how they fold,” continues Barr, and this is the focus of the research Barr has been conducting with Alison Holliday, assistant professor of chemistry. Their work, “Following Folding Transitions with Capillary Electrophoresis and Ion Mobility Spectrometry,” done in conjunction with researchers at Indiana University and Texas A&M, will be submitted for publication to the journal Analytical Chemistry. And Barr will be first author—an exceptional achievement for an undergrad.

“Dr. Holliday told me that if I took the lead on the writing, I could be the first author on the paper,” says Barr. “I felt intimidated at first, but we worked on it section by section. It was a great experience. I’ll be doing research and publishing my work when I’m in graduate school, and now I know how to go about it.”

Barr is grateful to Holliday for the opportunity, and her openness in allowing students to take their research as far as they want and fully explore any and every opportunity is one of the reasons Barr is so enthusiastic about having studied with her. He also appreciates Holliday’s teaching methods. “She didn’t just teach chemistry, she taught me how to be a chemist,” Barr explains. “Her approach was to say, ‘If I gave you this problem, how would you solve it?’.

“I’ve grown so much compared with where I was in the spring of last year,” Barr continues. “I feel like a chemist.”

Indeed, he is a chemist—a very fine one, as his Princeton University acceptance underscores.