The Running Life of a Student Researcher

Sheila Paintsil contributes to knowledge about cells and molecules.

As soon as her lab was over at six in the evening, Sheila Paintsil would hit the University of North Carolina trails. She didn’t let the heat stop her. She’d swing by the library and the student center, circle the monumental bell tower in the center of campus, and head toward the quiet of the tree-lined bike trails.

“It’s my stress reliever,” says Sheila. “When I get out of the lab, I put in my ear buds, listen to music, and run. When I get back, I’ve got a clean slate. It’s like a reset.”

All of this summer running took place at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Sheila, a UMD senior, was selected for the 2016 Summer Research Program in Biophysics sponsored by the U.S. Biophysical Society and the National Institutes of Health.

Sheila needed that reset. The offer of summer research was an honor, but it came with a price. For eleven weeks, from morning until night, she either took classes or worked in the lab. The evening run helped balance out the rigorous schedule.

Back at UMD, she still hasn’t stopped running.  Sheila has taken advantage of the warmer weather with runs in Duluth’s Canal Park and on the Lakewalk. She runs in Chester Park and the Bagley Nature Area too, just blocks from the Life Science building where most of her research takes place.


Yes, Sheila is a researcher. She’s in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) working under Chemistry & Biochemistry Professor Erin Sheets. Sheila’s major is in biochemistry and molecular biology, with the accent on molecular.

The work she does can't be physically seen. You have to visualize it. Sheila is trying to understand what is behind the cellular processes inside a molecule. She has been working on expressing and purifying a fluorescent protein that senses macromolecular crowding. Think about how crowded a freeway is during rush hour compared with an early morning weekend drive. Crowding affects how molecules interact and work together to function inside cells.

With the team of professors, undergrad and grad students, Sheila is studying protein and molecular dynamics, protein-protein interactions, and macromolecular crowding. In fact, her most recent poster presentation for her UROP was about producing a protein for these crowding studies. 

"I was really pleased when Sheila was invited to the Research Program in Biophysics," said Erin Sheets, chemistry professor and Sheila's advisor. "It's a competitive and prestigious program but the best part of it is the opportunity to learn what it's like to do cutting edge work with top students and top researchers."


Sheila is a co-president of the Society of Chemists and Biochemists Club. The group brings professors and speakers to the group. They work on professional development such as resume writing and talk about research.  They relax and bond over pizza and dinners with Chemistry & Biochemistry professors at the home of Profs. Sheets and Ahmed Heikal, who is also a professor in Chemistry & Biochemistry.

Sheila was born in Nairobi, Kenya and moved to Coon Rapids with her family in 2000. While science is the center of her world, her family holds a special place for Sheila. They encouraged her high school interest in chemistry and are proud of her accomplishments.

“My projects at UMD are fascinating,” says Sheila. “The natural environment is beautiful; there’s lots to do in the city; and I’m only two hours from home.

Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

Biophysics at UMD: The Sheets Research Group