The power of why

Why are bats the only mammals that can fly? Why is a horse's metatarsal so long? Ever since she was a kid floating down the John Day River in Oregon, Abby Burtner has asked why. As an undergraduate researcher, her "why" questions have led to groundbreaking scientific developments that have a global impact.

Photo of Abby Burtner in her lab

Growing up in Olympia, WA, Abby Burtner was always out in nature. A child fascinated with biology, Burtner was curious about all the different kinds of animals. On her family’s yearly rafting trip to the John Day River in a remote patch of northeast Oregon, Burtner searched for animal bones.

“They were mostly just cow bones, but to me, they were as cool as dinosaur bones,” she recalled. Captivated by how these animals evolved such strange shapes, she asked question after question, “Why is a horse’s metatarsal so long?” Burtner was amazed at the wild solutions nature had found over centuries, and her outside adventures fueled her desire to learn more.

Abby Burtner as a 11-year-old child floating in a boat on a river

As a child, Abby Burtner's family took annual rafting trips along the John Day River in Oregon. These trips sparked her boundless curiosity about the world around her.

A curious trail

Following her curiosity to the University of Washington, Burtner, ’24, secured her first research opportunity in Professor Sharlene Santana’s evolutionary biology lab through the Office of Undergraduate Research. There she worked with postdoc Chris Law examining the macroevolution of mammalian skeletal traits. They dug further into those questions of her childhood, seeking out how mammals and skeletons evolved over long periods of time. “Why did bats evolve to be the only mammals that can fly?” she asked. “Why do these funky animal shapes happen?”

Burtner credits this experience as setting her trajectory as an undergraduate researcher. “The Office of Undergraduate Research was pivotal in connecting students with these opportunities,” said Burtner. The welcoming research community proved essential as her Husky experience began at the height of COVID-19.

Burtner, a biochemistry major with College Honors and minors in data science and chemistry, reflected on that period of remote learning, “It was impossible to go through my first couple of years of college without having the coronavirus in the back of my mind.” Studying biochemistry, she was motivated to understand what was happening around her and to seek out ways she could help with future pandemics.

Working at the Burke Museum as an undergraduate research assistant, Burtner got hands-on experience measuring skeletons and began working with computational methods. Yet she yearned for a deeper, more microscopic understanding of evolution. “I realized that I wasn’t fully satisfied by the explanation of how evolution was working on a macroscopic scale,” Burtner said. She was driven to unearth a biochemical understanding of evolution.

Broadened perspectives

An interdisciplinary history and philosophy class helped shape Burtner’s perspective on science and innovation. The class’s exploration of scientific revolutions sparked her realization that advancements in one field can revolutionize another. “That was an interesting look at the science that made me take a step back,” she said of the genesis of her interdisciplinary studies. This cross-disciplinary awakening to new ideas and connections guided Burtner directly to Professor Neil King’s lab at the Institute for Protein Design (IPD).

Burtner’s arrival at the lab coincided with South Korea approving the IPD’s COVID-19 vaccine. Burtner was now working at the forefront of much-needed vaccine innovations. The IPD has revolutionized medicine and protein design through deep learning, a method in artificial intelligence (AI) that teaches computers to process data like the human brain, and machine learning, the development of statistical algorithms that learn from known data and unseen data. “When you are not limited by technology anymore, it comes down to how creative you can be,” Burtner explained.

Changing the world

Photo of Abby Burtner looking to the left.

Being a part of the UW’s Institute for Protein Design has been an inspiring force for Burtner.Photo by Jayden Becles

“I think vaccines are particularly dramatic examples of technologies that can change the world for the better,” said Burtner. Many traditional vaccines, like the flu vaccine, use a virus that’s live, but weakened or dead to stimulate strong immune responses. “There are huge public health ramifications,” said Burtner, explaining that these processes can cause issues for immunocompromised individuals. Research is shifting toward safer protein-based subunit vaccines, which eliminate potential risks by only displaying the necessary components of the pathogen.

“When people in my life have become sick, I want to help them,” said Burtner of her drive to help others through research. These vaccines required the co-delivery of adjuvants, like aluminum salt, to stimulate the immune system, but their mechanism isn’t fully understood and can’t be tailored for a specific immune response. Burtner sought out to create protein-based adjuvants to co-deliver with protein vaccines for a safer, more effective approach.

By targeting the toll-like receptor family of proteins, well-known activators of immune signaling, the goal was to get those specific immune responses.

“The IPD has been an inspiring space to be because of rapid design developments worldwide,” said Burtner. She cites the lab’s innovative and revolutionary design of de novo proteins as possible due to the deep learning revolution in biochemistry. The breakthrough release of AlphaFold2, the protein structure prediction algorithm enabled them for the first time to accurately predict the structure of a protein.

Advancing the inquiry

Burtner’s high-level research accomplishments in new areas of technology development have been propelled by undergraduate research champions. On receiving the Washington Research Foundation Fellowship, Burtner shared that not only would the financial support allow her to continue her research, but that it brought her into community with scholars who consistently inspire her with their visions for research and the future.

Burtner has additionally received the Mary Gates Research Scholarship, Goldwater Scholarship for undergraduate research, and most recently, the prestigious Churchill Scholarship in recognition of her outstanding achievements in biochemistry. Burtner’s next adventure will take her to England, where she will study for a fully-funded master’s degree in pathology at the University of Cambridge.

“I’m interested in broader questions, and this comes from my background in evolution, by asking these core questions,” said Burtner. How do we recognize self versus non-self as threats to our immune system? How do we distinguish between harmless and harmful?

Burtner recognizes her curiosity stems from a childhood spent with her family outdoors and backpacking through nature. The time fascinated her by all things not manufactured. Today she continues to ask, “How can this all be?”

Originally published March 2024

What you care about can change the world

The Office of Undergraduate Research helps students engage in research with UW faculty mentors in all disciplines. The Office offers research scholarships, hosts summer research programs, provides courses and workshops, convenes the Undergraduate Research Symposium and summer symposia, and supports the Undergraduate Research Leaders program.