Hunter Nisonoff: Student Research Explores Designs for New HIV Vaccines

Hunter Nisonoff
Hunter Nisonoff

When he wasn't boxing at a local gym in Durham and playing intramural soccer, senior Hunter Nisonoff spent his summer researching potential HIV vaccines in Bruce Donald’s lab.

Nisonoff, a math major and global health and chemistry minor from Emerson, N.J., is working on two projects: one project is based in theory and the other focuses on applications of the theory. His mentor, Bruce Donald, is the James B. Duke professor of computer science and chemistry.

His first project, funded by the Dean’s Summer Research Fellowship, uses computational equations to conceive of new HIV vaccines by studying protein structures and design. Although the lab is still working on predictions for their models, they are hoping to find an experimental collaborator who can put their predictions into action.

The second project, which he will turn into a senior thesis, aims to improve computer programming that is used to make predictions about protein interactions for his vaccine project.

“My research projects relate to each other pretty well,” he said. “With the HIV project, I'm often using an algorithm for my design predictions. So any improvements that we make with the algorithm in my second project will affect our biochemistry results as well.”

“With the Donald lab, it’s nice having this balance between computer science and biochemistry,” he said. “For a couple hours a day, I might be reading papers about biochemistry and microbiology, but in the afternoon I can be reading computer science papers.”

He said several of his chemistry and computer science courses have helped prepare him for his research but added that the research enhances his coursework just as much.

“Research has really taught me how to improve my learning in the classroom,” Nisonoff said. “In a lot of my classes, I've learned the material but not to the point that I feel like I could actually apply it to something. Once you have that experience of needing to read papers to understand the process you’re actually working on, it really helps.”

Nisonoff said he is still working out the details on his post-graduation plans, but hopes to continue working on research for at least a year before deciding if he wants to pursue graduate school. He said he prefers working with the applicable sides of research rather than the theoretical.

“I’m particularly interested in applications to global health and vaccine or drug design,” he said. “I see myself building a computational background, but ultimately using that to apply to problems in biology or chemistry.”