Washington State University biochemistry major Owen Canterbury has received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar award to conduct research at Germany’s Heidelberg University, said April Seehafer, director of the Distinguished Scholarships Program.

Owen continues WSU’s long tradition with the Fulbright organization, becoming the 66th awardee since 1949.

“I am pleased to be selected as a Fulbright recipient and I think it will be a really good experience both academically and personally,” said Canterbury.

Canterbury will investigate the mechanisms involved in bacterial ribosome-associated protein quality control (RQC) under the mentorship of Heidelberg professor Claudio Joazeiro, an international leader in the study of proteolysis.

In addition to his studies, Canterbury intends to volunteer at an organic farm, play soccer, and run in the rural, mountainous countryside where his maternal grandmother was raised.

“I took seven semesters of German language and literature at WSU, and I plan to put that knowledge to good use as I study, make new friends, and represent WSU and America abroad,” Canterbury said.

Growing knowledge at WSU

He is a graduate of Ellensburg High School and choose to attend WSU because “the cost-to-opportunity ratio was as good as I could find anywhere, plus it’s known for having many professors who take pride in impacting the educations of their students.”

His extracurricular experiences—high school poetry recitations and Knowledge Bowl participation, plus running—caught the attention of Michael Varnum, associate professor in Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience. His lab investigates the molecular mechanisms of ion channels that are directly activated by intracellular cyclic nucleotides.

“He saw I could do the science, but I think he liked that I was well-rounded. I’ve worked in his lab since January 2018 and it has been a really good experience. I’ve learned how to troubleshoot problems, get great feedback, and am co-author on a manuscript. I also  really appreciate Dr. Varnum’s Shakespeare quotes.”

Yet it’s a quote from Voltaire’s Candide that Canterbury uses in reference to his methodically planned undergraduate journey: “We must cultivate our own garden.”

In addition to his biochemistry studies and lab research, he has been an undergraduate research peer mentor for the Office of Undergraduate Research, was an intern researcher at Duke University in the summer of 2019 having received an Amgen Scholarship, bred different varieties of squash in his garden, and snipped his Bonsai trees into order.

“Gardening’s a lot of work, but in the end, you always have something to show for it.”

Not always so in science research, he said, but it’s the never-ending process of asking questions and finding answers that he enjoys.

Protein research to benefit therapies

In Germany, Canterbury’s research will focus on the RQC enzyme RqcH—present in both humans and bacteria. He will strive to identify what cofactors assist RqcH in the bacterial system—a pathway that is not well understood. Defective protein quality control is often a causative element of neurodegenerative diseases and a better understanding of RQC has the potential to generate novel therapeutic options, he said.

When he returns from his Fulbright experience, he plans to enter a doctoral program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. His career goal is to be a principal investigator at a university studying molecular pathology, ultimately contributing to the advancement of health care worldwide.

“WSU provided me with so many opportunities to learn, to research, to serve other students and give back in a meaningful way. The Fulbright helps me on the next adventure. But I’ll always be grateful for my WSU experience.”