Eric Conn Biochemistry Quizzes: Answer Me This!

Feb 24, 2021

Eric Conn Biochemistry Quizzes: Answer Me This!

Feb 24, 2021

Answer me this: “What is the name of the proteins (water channels) that facilitates water transport into and out of cells? And who discovered this family of proteins?”

The 60 undergraduate students competing in the first-ever Eric Conn Biochemistry Quizzes at the University of California, Davis, answered: “Aquaporins and Peter Agre.”

“They got it right,” said organizer-moderator Walter Leal, UC Davis distinguished professor of molecular and cellular biology and a former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology. "Peter Agre," he added, "was an American physician and molecular biologist who won the Nobel Prize in 2003 for this discovery.”

The students, divided into 12 teams of five each, answered a bevy of biochemistry questions in a two-hour virtual event memorializing legendary plant biochemist Eric Conn (1923-2017), a UC Davis emeritus professor and fellow of the National Academy of Sciences. 

More than 300 attendees ZOOMed in to watch the competition, hearing questions and answers such as:

  • "Why do hairdressers use thioglycolic acid for permanent hair treatment?”
    Answer: To break disulfide bridges.
  • "What was Eric Conn's favorite amino acid?”
    Answer: Tyrosine.
  • "Why is the spike protein called a glycoprotein?"
    Answer: Because it is decorated with sugar.
  • "When you get ivy poisoning, where do you expect that the active ingredient (urushiol) will accumulate?"
    Answer: In the cell membrane.
  • "Who was the scientist at the Genome Center that came out with the idea of using papain protease to reduce saliva viscosity?"
    Answer: Lutz Froenicke

 “I thought the quizzes would help students get out of the ZOOM routine," Leal said, "but I did not envision that there would be so much interest. The response was overwhelming, and students showed a genuine interest in the activity. They recorded videos for self-introduction, studied for the quizzes, and--more importantly--made new friends.” 

The event drew so much widespread interest that Leal expanded the teams from eight to 12. The first eight teams to register played online, while the other four competed “off tube” or off-camera. 

College of Biological Sciences (CBS) faculty asked the questions, with CBS emeriti professors Clark Lagarias and Charles Gasser serving as judges. Each team had a minute to answer a question. In the meantime, "we showed interviews about Eric Conn, favorite spots on the UC Davis campus, and videos about COVID-19 and other health issues,” Leal said. 

Two teams emerged victorious as the champions: Ironic Bonds and the Gibbs Team. Tonie Leech, Jiaying Liu, Catherine Rodriguez, Lauren Hartwell, and Kelly Brandt comprised the Ironic Bonds, while Natalie Six, Brandon Matsumoto, Tina Luu, Yasi Parsa, and Esha Urs formed the Gibbs Team. 

Leal said the 60 students, five on each of the 12 teams, “were randomly selected for a team. Perhaps they would never have had a chance to work together on a project, particularly now in this remote learning era.”  

The other online teams sported such names as the Green Team (named for the late Mel Green, UC Davis genetics pioneer), Amigo Acids, Proline Pros, Drop the Base, Krebs Cyclists, and Attack on Titration. Of the four off-tube teams (Teams A, B, C and D), Team A and Team B won. Team A members: Efrain Vasquez Santos, Daniel Colón, Eva Pak, Stephanie Matsumoto and Julia Ekmekchyan. Team B members: Brycen Carter, Beatrice Ark-Majiyagbe, Ritika Pudota, Katie Kim and Samantha Levy) won.

Participating students joined in from as far away as India, Japan, and China and as close as Davis. Other students hailed from Cupertino, Los Angeles, Redwood City, Santa Monica, Palmdale, Irvine, Redding, Sacramento, Fairfield, Cupertino, San Jose, San Diego, San Ramon, Elk Grove, San Lorenzo, Lincoln, El Centro, Santa Rosa, Oakland, Roseville, Tracy, and Martinez in California, and Long Island in New York, among the many other municipalities. 

One student, Aaditi Gaikwad, a junior in genetics and genomics, zoomed in from India at 5:30 a.m. "At first when I decided to participate in the Eric Conn Biochemistry Quiz, I was very nervous and had second thoughts, but I decided to give it a try and step out of my comfort zone and I am glad that I did," Gaikwad said. "I am attending classes from India due to the pandemic and the timezone difference is a huge challenge for me. For the Eric Conn Quiz, I had to be up and ready before 5.30 a.m., which I didn't mind at all because I was so excited for it. The quiz was the most spectacular start to my day! I also really enjoyed working with my team. Overall, the Eric Conn Biochemistry Quiz was an awesome experience and I take this opportunity to thank you Dr. Leal for facilitating it."

Leal said the event may become annual. The exit survey showed more than 95 percent approval rate of "satisfied or very satisfied." The attendees praised Leal,(who previously hosted four public COVID-19 symposiums), for a job well done.  

Other comments included:

  • “It was wonderful....a nice way for students to showcase their knowledge to their families and friends and a wonderful tribute to a great UCD scientist.  Kudos to Professor Leal for putting it together.” 
  • "Dr. Leal is impressive in organizing these events and the COVID symposiums.”
  • "Very entertaining would watch again!
  • "This was a great event and I am happy I got to be a part of it."
  • "This was great! You (Leal) should definitely make this an annual thing!”
  • "This was a super fun event and I wish we could have the opportunity to have something like this again. It was a really good review of the material we learned.”
  • "I wanted to play!"

The viewers heaped praise on the students:

  • "Well done to all the students! Your studying paid off and it was entertaining to see you guys compete!”
  • "I am very proud of the students and hold both students and faculty in highest regard, very respectful and smart."
  • "Very good job! It was a lot of fun seeing everyone play.”
  • "Great job y'all, you're braver than I am and I was impressed by how many questions you were able to answer correctly!”
  • "Congratulations to all that played today.  You are inspiring young individuals and we know you will leave a mark on your chosen fields of study.”
  • "Very impressed with the caliber of students involved. Great game!”

Conn, a member of the UC Davis faculty for 43 years, was the third recipient of the UC Davis Prize for Teaching and Scholarly Achievement.  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. See  

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