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Kerri Czekner Awarded Fulbright Research Award to Italy

Nicole Patterson

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Senior Kerri Czekner has been awarded a Fulbright Research Award to Italy to conduct cancer research at the Istituto Europeo di Oncologia in the melanoma laboratory of Dr. Luisa Lanfrancone in Milan. This prestigious award was only offered to 11 students in the United States.

“I’m extremely excited about the possibility of returning to Italy to engage in meaningful scientific research,” she said. Current travel restrictions due to COVID-19 do not allow Americans to enter Italy, so she’s waiting to hear more information from the Fulbright Commission before she makes a final decision to accept. “Even if I am not able to pursue this excellent opportunity, I look forward to pursuing my doctorate at the Skaggs Graduate School of Chemical and Biological Sciences at Scripps Research.”

Czekner was only 13 years old when her interest in medical research began. She began reading popular science magazines about breakthroughs on the mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease. “I became fascinated by the biological mechanisms behind the human experience, the ways they go awry and how they can be altered with medical intervention. Molecular explanations for the tragically common human experience of cancer formed the basis for a university class in cancer biology, whose lessons took on a stark immediacy when my next-door neighbors, an elderly couple whom I had known since infancy, were diagnosed with cancer within weeks of one another,” she acknowledged. Czekner says witnessing their suffering motivated her to contribute to the development of more effective, less harmful cancer therapies—and it’s her long-term goal to become a cancer researcher.

Professor of Biology Dana Ward, Ph.D., taught that cancer biology course where the class read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. “It was an especially insightful look at the complexity of ethics, race and poverty, as well as a call to do better,” Czekner said. “While I don’t claim to have answers to all the complex ethical questions I may face as a medical researcher, my education and hopefully my research abroad with the Fulbright will give me the background I need to consider any quandaries thoroughly.” She said Ward’s class inspired her to look for cancer research opportunities in graduate school and throughout the Fulbright.  

Czekner was also inspired by Professor of Chemistry Isaac Mills, Ph.D. She completed research with him in his chemical synthesis lab since her freshman year when she took general chemistry. She was surprised at how much she enjoyed the course. “Because of Dr. Mills’ teaching, the drive to know 'why' and 'so what' have become major motivators in my scientific career,” she said.

Her desire to apply for a Fulbright to Italy developed from a study abroad experience in Florence, Italy, during the summer of 2019. The biochemistry major and English minor completed her first art course led by Associate Professor of Art Nick Hutchings, M.F.A. Czekner had studied Italian at the academic level for five years. “I found a markedly different perspective from what I had encountered in science, and even English classes; we visited museums and basilicas in lieu of classrooms. Through the appreciation and creation of art, I learned from and connected with my peers and with several Florentines,” she recounted. She recalls an interaction with one elderly man who approached her sketching in the Loggia dei Lanzi and he asked her in Italian if she was an artist. “The question surprised me and reminded me once again of perspectives; almost without realizing it, I had expanded mine over the course of the month, coming to understand far more about art and artists, as well as about Italy and Italian culture.” 

During the summer of 2020, she completed a summer research internship with faculty advisor and Associate Professor of Chemistry Garth Patterson, Ph.D., and created a portable spectrophotometer. “I began the Fulbright application process during lockdown in the summer of 2020, in my childhood bedroom—quite a contrast from the goal I was pursuing,” she says looking back.

“I began by reading about the work of Dr. Luisa Lanfrancone, a researcher in Italy whose lab focused primarily on finding actionable vulnerabilities in difficult-to-treat melanomas. I found her research interesting and exciting, so I reached out to her about potentially working with her during the grant period of the Fulbright; she very kindly supported the process,” Czekner explained. So she continued to craft a personal statement and statement of grant purpose—writing eleven and nine drafts, respectively. She says the work was difficult but rewarding because she gained a deeper understanding of her own story, motivations and goals. “In a way, I grew as a person and a writer from the application process alone!”

Many professors and mentors who have taught Czkener notice her talent. “Kerri is different. When I first met her I thought she was reserved. I quickly learned that in her introspective demeanor, she is sharply intelligent, bold, witty and highly observant. She is one of the most exceptional students I have had the honor of teaching—exceedingly talented, multi-faceted and draws from a wellspring of intelligence and thoughtfulness,” Hutchings wrote in Czekner’s Fulbright recommendation letter. Mills and Ward praised her capability, research skills and academic achievements. Professor Emeritus Michael Sollenberger, Ph.D., completed her Italian language evaluation.

Czkener worked with the Mount’s Fulbright committee comprised of Christine Blackshaw, Ph.D., competitive fellowships associate director and professor of Spanish; Associate Professor of Chemistry and Science Department Chair Garth Patterson, Ph.D.; Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Angy Kallarackal, Ph.D.; Assistant Professor of Education Michelle Ohanian, Ph.D.; Assistant Professor of Business Josey Chacko, Ph.D.; and Director of the Office of Competitive Fellowships and Associate Professor of History Jamie Gianoutsos, Ph.D., who provided support for her application and essays.

“With the support of the Fulbright program, I can continue to learn about different viewpoints, share my own, and ultimately expand my outlook in ways valuable to both a research career and to international dialogues, themselves vital to such a globally relevant and highly collaborative field as oncology,” Czekner added.

This spring Czekner presented her Senior Honors project titled Safer Synthesis of Novel Triphenylpyrylium Salts with Push-Pull Electronic Systems. “As the project has grown and evolved, from just me to five student researchers, I have similarly grown as a scientist. I learned new laboratory techniques, how to keep adapting a procedure until it works and how to deal with the frustration that comes with research,” she joked. “If it always worked, it wouldn’t be research! I am proud of what I’ve accomplished and very grateful to Dr. Mills for the opportunity and all the support.”

Czekner is a Founder’s Scholar, an Honors student, and was recently the recipient of the Bishop Allen Memorial Prize, the Seton Prize, and the James M. Murray Memorial Prize for the highest scholastic average throughout her four years and her distinguished achievements in biology and chemistry. She is also nonfiction editor of Lighted Corners literary and arts magazine.

The Mount has long-term Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program sucess and a recent history of Fulbright research award recipients. Veronica Balick, C’20, a biology and biochemistry major with a minor in mathematics, was the first Mount undergraduate student to secure a Research/Study award as a current student. She is now studying cancer immunology and biotechnology at the University of Nottingham and was a 2019-20 Barry M. Goldwater Scholar. Like Czekner, she was also a recipient of the Mount’s Founder’s Scholarship.

 John-Paul Heil, C’15, was a finalist for the 2015 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Award to Italy and the recipient of a 2020 Fulbright Research Study Award to Italy. He is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago and an adjunct professor in the Department of History at the Mount. 

Nicole Patterson