Richard Albright spent his first year at VCU focusing on jazz guitar. But being exposed to other disciplines piqued an interest in science that led him to an ALS research project. (Photo illustration by University Relations)

This VCU student is researching a poorly understood gene that might help treat ALS

Richard Albright came to VCU to study music. Now he continues his passion for guitar as he pursues a degree in biology.

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As a jazz guitar major in the Department of Music at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts, Richard Albright did not expect to spend time in a lab uncovering the secrets of a gene that could give insights into Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurodegenerative condition.

Albright spent his first year at VCU taking classes focused on jazz, classical guitar, ensembles and music theory. But Albright said being exposed to other disciplines in college piqued his interest in science. He decided to take a semester off to explore other interests by taking introductory science classes at a community college and to complete basic emergency medical technician training.

“Once I had taken those courses, I knew I had to return to VCU and give science, specifically biology, my attention,” Albright said. “It’s difficult to put into words, but although I had a deep passion for music, being in a university exposed me to possibilities.”

Albright, a member of the Honors College, will graduate in May 2020 with bachelor’s degrees in biology and music. Although seemingly disparate, both disciplines complement and improve the skills of the other, he said.

“So one of my favorite things to do is to just be at home in my room and write music. It’s a really fulfilling process, just sitting there, being creative and writing what comes to mind,” Albright said. “It’s similar to thinking about new methods or questions I could ask about research. Writing a thesis or research article is similar to composing music.”

That creative, critical-thinking process followed Albright as he began to pursue an interest in scientific research. Inspired by a 2017 workshop geared toward improving the skills of science students, Albright began to review the biology studies published by his professors and approached them with questions during office hours. His curiosity led him to the work of Derek Prosser, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Biology. Albright spent his summer Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program fellowship under Prosser’s guidance studying a gene linked to Lou Gehrig’s disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

The fellowship not only honed Albright’s critical-thinking skills but also allowed him to hone laboratory techniques commonly used by biologists.

Albright also learned about the workings of the AVL9 gene, the overexpression of which Prosser found to be linked to the restoration of normal traits in cells affected by Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“My project has been largely trying to figure out what AVL9’s normal function is, which might tell us how it could be used to treat ALS,” Albright said. “Not much is known about AVL9.”

Albright encourages students with an interest in science to give research a try.

“Doing some sort of research experience is the best thing you could do because it’s very different than learning in the classroom,” he said. “It’s taking what you have learned and applying it.” 

As part of Research Weeks (April 5-26) we are highlighting the work of six undergraduates whose work was made possible by VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Department of BiologyDivision for Community Engagementand guidance from faculty members.

Research Weeks take place on both campuses and feature a wide variety of projects in multiple disciplines.

See more stories by clicking on links in the “Related stories” section or learn more about the lineup of events for this year’s Research Weeks.