Steck Award recipient helps discover protein involved with circadian clock timing

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Alfred Freeberg plans to apply for acceptance in a PhD program in possibly circadian biology or biochemistry this fall.

Every once in a while, professors meet a student who seems destined to be a star in their field.

For Carrie Partch, UC Santa Cruz associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, one of those students is Alfred Freeberg, this year’s winner of the prestigious Steck Family Award. The award is given for an outstanding senior research project chosen from 15 Chancellor Awards projects.

“Alfred is in this rare class – a few students that I’ve had that have wowed me with their perseverance and creativity and spirit in the lab,” Partch said.

Freeberg assisted in the Partch lab’s study of the molecular basis for circadian rhythms - biological processes that occur naturally in line with the Earth’s 24-hour daily rotation cycle.

He said he was blown away that he received the award, which comes with a $1,000 prize. “I was very surprised and felt honored and lucky to have these experiences,” he said.

He praised Partch for being a wonderful mentor and a world-class researcher who is committed to diversity in education.

Raised in Napa, Freeberg grew up playing in the woods and became interested in science through his love of nature. He was fascinated by the complexity of all facets of nature and its ecosystems and wanted to learn more.

At UC Santa Cruz, Freeberg assisted in research that dealt with the reasons for differences in people’s sleep cycles. Most people have an internal clock matching that 24-hour Earth cycle that causes them to get tired around 10 or 11 p.m. and wake up around 7 or 8 a.m., while others have a cellular variant that causes their clock to run on a shorter 20-hour cycle. These “extreme morning larks” are usually wide awake at 3 or 4 a.m. and fall asleep at 7 p.m.

Freeberg and his graduate student mentor in the lab discovered that the CK1 protein has a tiny switch that controls the clock timing. People with shorter cycles have their switch locked into the “on” position, said Partch.

Freeberg was listed as the second author of a long list of contributors in a report about the research. An unexpected honor came when Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, featured the study in his blog. People who have the shorter 20-hour clock live with constant jet-lag and can have metabolic, cardiovascular and other behavioral disorders. Partch said the research Freeberg worked on is an important first step in possibly developing drugs that could help people adjust those cycles.

Freeberg plans to apply for acceptance in a PhD program in possibly circadian biology or biochemistry this fall. In the meantime, he will continue to work in Partch’s lab.

He said the COVID–19 pandemic and recent protests for racial justice are causing him to consider his values and how they apply to his career choice. While science is an amazing way to understand the world, it is also apolitical, which has both good and bad points. “It almost feels like putting your head in the sand,” he said.

He’s considering the morality of his possible career choices, and is asking himself: “How does science fit into the society I want to be part of and contribute to?”