- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
A friendly global rivalry between undergraduate biochemistry students at UC Davis and at University College Dublin, Ireland, is being launched in memory of plant biochemist Eric Conn (1923-2017), a UC Davis professor emeritus of molecular and cellular biology and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
To be called the UCD vs. UCD Biochemistry Games, it will be preceded by a preliminary game, the Eric Conn Biochemistry Quizzes, set for 4 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 20 to determine the UC Davis participants. Students (prospective participants) and the public can register at https://tinyurl.com/y33eyc4v. Up to 500 members of the public can register.
“Both UC Davis and UC Dublin are global research universities,” said organizer Walter Leal, a UC Davis distinguished professor of molecular and cellular biology and a former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology (now the Department of Entomology and Nematology). “However, the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered our efforts to exchange students. Meanwhile, remote learning is causing ZOOM fatigue and impairing student's ability to focus. We hope that this educational activity will promote physically distant, socially close interactions between undergraduate students and further our institutions' ties.”
Both universities maintain vibrant research programs, said Leal. More than 39,000 students attend UC Davis, a public land-grant research university and a member of the Association of American Universities, and more than 33,000 attend UC Dublin, a member institution of the National University of Ireland, and Ireland's largest university.
The number of UC Davis students selected to compete is undetermined, depending on responses from UC Dublin, Leal said. “It may be between 10 and 15 students on each team.”
“The final Games will focus on protein structures, including two proteins closely related to SARSCoV-2 inflicted COVID-19 disease,” Leal said. “Specifically, students will be asked questions about the structures of human hemoglobin--the protein that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body's tissues (and return carbon dioxide) and the virus' spike protein-- that binds to a human receptor, known as ACE2, and starts the process of invading human cells.” The Eric Conn Quizzes will cover other topics of fundamental biochemistry.
Leal said that one of the most notorious presentations of COVID-19 is hypoxia (insufficient oxygen in the blood). “While the virus replicates and the spike proteins trigger invasion to other cells, hemoglobin cannot capture enough oxygen because the lungs' alveoli are filled with the mucus derived from the viral infection.”
Two Department of Molecular and Cell Biology emeriti professors Charles Gasser and National Academy of Sciences member J. Clark Lagarias, will ask questions and serve as judges for both the preliminary game and the final. Two UC Dublin judges also will be selected. Prizes are pending.
The event promises to be an educational and entertaining activity but at the same time honoring legendary plant biochemist Eric Conn, world-renowned in his field for his contributions to the understanding of plant metabolism. Conn served on the UC Davis faculty for 43 years.
“He is remembered as an architect and advocate of biological sciences programs at UC Davis whose leadership helped establish the academic spirit of the College of Biological Sciences as it exists today,” according to a Sept. 21, 2017 article on the College of Biological Sciences website.
Born in Berthoud, Colo., the youngest of four sons, Eric moved with his family in the early 1930s to Bellaire, Kan. He considered himself a “child of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression.” Eric received a four-year scholarship to the University of Colorado, earning his bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1944. He worked as an inorganic chemist with the Manhattan Project through the remainder of World War II, first as a citizen and then as a private with the U.S. Army.
Conn received his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Chicago in 1948 and served as a postdoctoral fellow there for two years before joining the faculty of UC Berkeley in 1950. Conn joined the UC Davis faculty in 1958, founding the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics with UC Davis colleague Paul Stumpf (1919-2007). The department they founded evolved into the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.
Described as an excellent teacher and researcher, Conn 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.
Conn organized the university's introductory course in biochemistry in 1959 and taught it until his retirement in 1993. The course became a requirement for numerous undergraduate majors. Conn was the third recipient of the UC Davis Prize for Teaching and Scholarly Achievement (https://youtu.be/TdwJkcjQvbw)