- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
The event, the Eric Conn Memorial Biochemistry Games, not only memorialized a UC Davis plant biochemist, but offered “ZOOM fatigue relief” for UC Davis undergraduate students and Cardiff University students studying biochemistry, said organizer and moderator Walter Leal, UC Davis distinguished professor of molecular and cellular biology.
“They had so much fun,” said Leal, a former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology. “Ten years from now, most of these students will be in another field and professions unrelated to biochemistry. Those not remaining in biochemistry will probably forget everything they learned this quarter. However, all students who participated will never forget this experience. In the middle of a pandemic and suffering from ZOOM fatigue, they made new friends across the pond. Eric Conn would be happy to see undergraduate students having this experience.”
UC Davis won the event, but “UC Davis had a competitive advantage because this was their second game,” Leal noted. “Everything was new for Cardiff. Additionally, the contents of our syllabi differ.”
Catherine Rodriguez, a microbiology major, captained the six-member UC Davis Team, known as the Ironic Bonds. Fellow team members: Kelly Brandt (biochemistry and molecular biology major), Jiaying Liu (biological sciences), Aly Lodigiana (cellular biology), Efrain Santos (neurobiology, physiology and behavior) and Mary Aina (psychology).
The Cardiff team: spokesperson Jessie Vaughan, and members Marianna Gisdaki, Kia Blackburn, Ellie Whitworth, Alice Pike, and Anastasia Rouchota.
The event also cemented friendships. “A student from UC Davis reached out to become an electronic pen-pal with Cardiff students,” Leal said, adding that “both Cardiff and UC Davis parents wrote direct emails indicating how pleased they were with the event.”
The deans will exchange hoodies. Also, all participants will receive certificates.
UC Davis Chancellor Gary May delivered the welcoming address. While the students were answering questions, Dr. Dean Blumberg of UC Davis Health fielded questions on COVID-19 vaccines.
Nearly 300 logged-in to see the three games: two preliminary games with UC Davis students competing for slots on the final team, and the UC Davis/Cardiff game. The Ironic Bonds defeated the Gibbs Team in the preliminary. “Every student who played on Wednesday will receive a gift card,” Leal said.
Other judges were Cardiff faculty member D. Dafydd Jones; UC Davis emeritus professor Charles Gasser, and UC Davis distinguished research professor Clark Lagarias, a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Professor Conn also enjoyed close ties with Professor Gasser. “It was Eric who persuaded Charles, then in the private sector, to apply for a position at UC Davis,” Leal related. “Then when Charles joined UC Davis faculty, Eric gave him his lab, which he used until his retirement.”
Two Cardiff faculty members with links to UC Davis assisted with organizing the event and reading the questions:
- Mark Young, a senior lecturer, lived in Davis as a child while his father Thomas Young, taught brewing at UC Davis
- Wynand van der Goes van Naters, a lecturer, is an associate of Leal's, spanning back to when they both lived and worked in Japan. “His research is also focused on insect olfaction,” Leal said. “He was the person I reached out to make the initial contact.”
Some of the Questions Asked
Some of the questions the students answered at the event:
Question: “What is one of the ways that humans adapt to high altitudes by virtue of what happens to hemoglobin?”
Answer: “Increase production of a compound named 2,3-BPG that leads to increase delivery of oxygen.”
Question: “Which portion of the spike protein moves up and down to either evade the immune system or allow virus entry to the host cell to occur?”
Answer: “The receptor-binding domain.”
Question: “A1c is a blood test that measures your average blood sugar levels over the past 3 months. The A1c test measures the percentage of your red blood cells that have sugar-bound hemoglobin. Which ligand binds to hemoglobin as your blood sugar does, albeit in a reversible fashion?”
Answer: “Carbon dioxide”
Question: “Why can crocodiles stay underwater for such a long time without drowning?”
Answer: “Their hemoglobin binds to bicarbonate and reduces affinity for oxygen (at the tissues).”
Question: “In the so-called UK variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus the amino acid residue asparagine in the receptor-binding domain at position 501 is replaced by which amino acid?”
Question: “Why the change of a single amino acid, glutamic acid to valine, in hemoglobin leads to sickle cell disease?”
Answer: “It causes aggregation of hemoglobin due to hydrophobic interactions.”
A poll of the viewers indicated 80 percent felt “very satisfied” with the event. Due to EU regulations, the event will not be posted on YouTube for public viewing.
Professor Conn (1923-2017) was a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences. A member of the UC Davis faculty for 43 years, he was the third recipient of the UC Davis Prize for Teaching and Scholarly Achievement. Described as an excellent teacher and researcher, he received the Academic Senate's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1974 and the Academic Senate's highest honor, the Faculty Research Lecturer Award, in 1977. He won the UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement in 1989. See https://youtu.be/TdwJkcjQvbw.