Hijacking Human Cells

Christopher Lim ’12
Lim's career goal is to conduct research at the molecular level, but with medical needs in mind.

When HIV infects human cells, it manages the sneaky feat of employing its own enemy.

The virus creates tiny proteins that hijack human cells and distract them from their usual work. “Basically,” says Christopher Lim’12, “HIV tricks our cells into being little virus factories.”

Lim—a Ph.D. candidate in the molecular biophysics and biochemistry department at Yale—is trying to figure out how this happens. Working in the lab of Yong Xiong, he is studying how HIV uses its viral proteins to evade the defenses of the human body.

“The terms we use is host-virus interaction,” he says. Specifically, he is trying to determine the three-dimensional structure of the viral proteins.

Lim credits an Amherst biochemistry class and its professor, Sheila Jaswal, as his main influences in choosing this area of study. He says the junior-level course taught him that, whether in basic biology research or in drug design, it’s essential to understand the structures of proteins. “That class informed the way I think about biology,” he says.

His Amherst thesis project with Anthony Bishop also sparked his interest in structural biology. Now in his second year at Yale, Lim is part of the Medical Research Scholars Program, in which Ph.D. students in the basic sciences take extra courses—similar to those taken by first-year medical students—and seminars with doctors and medical students.

“We ask them about the medical needs that basic science can help with,” he says. The program’s goal is to understand how basic scientists can discover the unmet needs of physicians and bring that knowledge to the lab.

Christopher Lim ’12 In fact, while Lim’s career goal is to conduct research at the molecular level, he hopes to do that work with medical needs in mind. Because of his experience at Amherst, he says, he is thinking about pursuing a career in academic teaching. “Amherst informed how much I care about good instruction,” Lim says.

For now, in addition to his classes and lab work, Lim is working to increase diversity in STEM fields: He is co-founder and co-president of the Yale chapter of oSTEM (Out in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics).

“Our main purpose is to increase the visibility of LGBTQ scientists here,” he says—to demonstrate by example that one can have a productive career as an out scientist.

“Career-wise, my ambition is to be that role model,” he says. “I aspire to be that visible person in the department.”