Peter Christenson Awarded Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship for 2021-2022

Peter Christenson has been awarded the 2021-2022 Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship by the University of Minnesota Graduate School. Working under the guidance of Professor Sang-Hyun Oh whose own expertise lies in exploring the use of nanotechnology for biosensing, Christenson’s doctoral research is focused on the use of optics and plasmonics for the study of protein pathologies. 

Christenson’s background as an undergraduate student, and his undergraduate research experience helped chart his path to ECE. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Bethel University where under the careful tutelage of his professors, and with the hands-on experience gained in laboratories he quickly learned that classroom knowledge does not exist in isolation; it has practical applications. The combination of in-class learning and laboratory experience played a critical role in laying the foundation for his future interest in research. Another shaping factor happened to be the conversations he had with his brother who has a PhD in biochemistry. Although physics and its engineering applications had always been Christenson’s first love, these discussions got him interested in biological systems, and the seed for interdisciplinary research was planted.

In the summer of his junior year, Christenson eagerly took up the opportunity to work in Professor Carrie Wilmot’s lab (College of Biological Sciences) under the University of Minnesota’s Life Sciences Summer Undergraduate Research Program (LSSURP). The time spent developing methods to purify novel proteins was a whole new world of science that he had not experienced before. The summer proved to be a turning point. Christenson realized that the road he wanted to travel on would be one where he could use the principles and technologies he learned in his physics classes to solve problems in biological systems.

Christenson’s Research Interests

Christenson is currently working on developing methods to detect chronic wasting disease (CWD) in cervids such as elk, moose, and deer. CWD is a prion disease caused when healthy prions misfold and form large, pathogenic fibrils. Over time, these fibrils accumulate in the deer’s central nervous system ultimately causing it to die. CWD is sweeping across the United States. Already well established in Colorado and Wisconsin, it is now starting to spread throughout Minnesota, threatening the deer farming and hunting economy, estimated to be around $500 million. Nationally, the disease has an even broader impact. Current CWD detection methods require tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment that cannot be used outside of a traditional lab setting, and tests take several days to complete. 

As part of his doctoral research which is situated at the crossroads of engineering and biology, Christenson is working with Professors Sang-Hyun Oh from ECE and Peter Larsen of the Minnesota Center for Prion Research and Outreach (MNPRO). MNPRO is a multi-disciplinary center at the University of Minnesota focused on the biology and epidemiology of human and animal prion diseases and related human protein-misfolding disorders. Under their guidance, Christenson is exploring cheaper, and more time efficient methods that use plasmonics in combination with surface functionalization chemistry for the detection of CWD. Very simply put,  plasmonics is a field where nanostructures are used to squeeze the energy of light down to very small spaces, where well confined, it can be a sensitive detector. Scientists can use techniques based in plasmonics to gain insights into the folding states of proteins. Christenson’s doctoral work is focused on making these techniques more robust, which could lead to widely applicable, rapid field tests for the detection of CWD and other protein-misfolding diseases.