Jeff Potratz, PhD, has put his scholarship pursuits into high gear over the past year thanks in large part to a semester-long sabbatical to pursue a new methodology for RNA folding that utilizes fluorescence instead of radioactivity.

Potratz serves as an associate professor of physical sciences at CUW. He earned his terminal degree in biochemistry from the University of Texas at Austin (UTA) in 2012. This past spring, Potratz took a leave of absence from his teaching responsibilities at Concordia to return to his alma mater. There, he worked alongside his doctoral mentor, Rick Russell, to investigate ribonucleic acid (RNA) folding.   

RNA folding

RNA is a molecule similar to DNA but it most often presents in a single-stranded form. For decades, researchers have investigated RNA for its implications on regulating gene expression.

Potratz was specifically interested in the RNA, Tetrahymena Ribozyme, which has long been used as a model system to study RNA folding and typically requires the use of radioactivity. For one to conduct research with radioactivity it requires a license that ensures an intense standard of security measures are met. It is common for larger research universities like UTA to have a radioactivity license, but it is much rarer for mid-sized or smaller universities to have one, making this type of research virtually unfeasible at a majority of the nation’s higher education institutions.  

While Potratz needed radioactivity to validate his research, his ultimate goal was to find an alternative method of researching the Tetrahymena Ribozyme – one that didn’t require an expensive license.

“My goal was to take the molecule and shift it into something we can work with here at Concordia,” Potratz said. “It worked better than I would have even thought. The implications for this now are that students at CUW can begin to do this high-caliber research right on our premises.”

Last month, Potratz’s research publication on Tetrahymena Ribozyme folding went live. Click here or below to read the publication.

Instilling a love of research among students

Research is a laudable pursuit for numerous reasons, not least of which is the skillsets it develops for those who undertake it. This is why Potratz and many other professors at Concordia actively seek out students who have the acumen for research and encourage them to consider participation in it.

“It really allows students to see what research looks like – the successes, but more often the struggles,” said Potratz. “There are lessons to be learned in struggles too. The attention to detail you need to have, the collaboration it requires, and a true understanding of what is happening in this little test tube. All of it is tremendous practice for students.”

Paige Russell, a May 2023 graduate, received the opportunity to step into research last fall. Russell earned her bachelor’s in biomedical sciences and is currently applying to PA programs. Potratz approached her with the prospect of contributing to his research using Desmos software. Initially released in 2011, Desmos is an advanced graphing calculator implemented as a web application.

Following lessons shared with his biochemistry classes utilizing the software, Russell led focus groups and interviewed students to collect data. At the end of the discovery and refinement process, Russell and Potratz ended up with a lesson plan that the Journal of Chemical Education published.

“Honestly, I didn’t think I would ever do research before Dr. Potratz asked me,” Russell said. “The personalized nature of this particular research, being able to have the conversations with Dr. Potratz, and just learning how to interact with peers in a scholarly manner was really helpful to me.”

Click here or on the image below to view their publication.

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Concordia’s Department of Physical Sciences has mission-driven professors who are experts in their field and who actively participate in myriad research opportunities. These individuals take a hands-on approach to learning, and help prepare students for vocations in research, education, graduate studies, and much more.