Scientist of the Week: Christopher Laumer

Caitlin Williamson

Senior Christopher Laumer is working toward a double major in biology and geology. He is currently conducting a research project with Dave Hall, associate professor of chemistry, involving the identification of proteins within the shells of hard corals.”I’m working on a project to determine at least one or several of the proteins that a hard coral uses to build its skeleton,” Laumer said. “We have found evidence that there are proteins embedded within layers of calcium carbonate that help form the crystal structure and help guide the nucleation of these crystals, and no one really knows what those are.”

The work is tedious, and involves several lengthy processes just to obtain an extraction of protein to sample from the coral. He is specifically studying Pocillopora damicornis, a type of hard coral.

“It’s very frustrating; I’m not a biochemist by trade,” Laumer said. “I’m doing this because I’m interested in bio-mineralization and this is very much a new approach for me. You pick it up as you go.”

Although Laumer is interested in the research he is conducting, it is only a pet project for him. His true interests lie in evolutionary relationships between animals.

The project is “sort of an idea I had and liked,” Laumer said. “It’s probably not my primary interest in the sciences; it’s simply a project I’ve picked up. I’ve done a few internships over the past several summers that have helped guide my ambitions and they’re pretty different from the project I’m currently working on.”

Last summer, Laumer was a student at Dartmouth College and worked in a molecular biology laboratory there, sequencing animal genes.

“I was sequencing them to determine the evolutionary relationships of the animals they belong to, which were sponges,” Laumer said.

“[My favorite part] was playing with the different means of analyzing data,” he continued. “When all was said and done, I had a thousand amino acids that were all lined up and all aligned relative to one another. You can analyze those in many different ways; it’s really sort of a philosophical choice. You get different evolutionary relationships based on what kind of analysis you do, which is a little problematic, but it’s a good way to learn where the strengths and weaknesses of this sort of molecular data lie.”

During the summer of 2006, Laumer had an internship at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. He was able to work with a paleontologist who studies Cenozoic bivalves.

“I learned a means of quantifying the shapes of these things and was able to use it to analyze some patterns of shape evolution within a larger group,” Laumer said. “To the outward eye it might seem that I gave up my geological roots, but I got interested in evolution and evolutionary relationships through paleontology. And I still believe paleontological data are pretty essential to unraveling the grand scheme of animal evolution.”

Laumer is planning on pursuing his interest in evolutionary relationships by attending graduate school after Lawrence. He was accepted this week into a doctoral program in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of California in Santa Barbara, but he is not positive yet where he will end up. However, Laumer does know what he wants to do with his degree.

“Research is where it’s at for me,” Laumer said. “If I could, I’d love to become a curator at a natural history museum someday.”

Spending time marveling at the miracles of nature in museums is what cultivated Laumer’s interest in geology and biology.

“Natural history museums are just a wonderful catalog of the diversity to be found in nature,” Laumer said. “Somewhere not very deeply buried inside me is a 10-year-old that just likes seeing gross things with tentacles or the next neat bug under a rock.