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Five Students Awarded NSF Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowships

Nicole Patterson

This summer five Mount students are completing Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Fellowship recipients Thomas Gamble, C’22, Jared Hampton, C’22, Elaina Perry, C’21, Santino Servagno,C’22, and Mary Yenca, C’22, are participating in active research at REU sites across the country at University of Georgia, University of Massachusetts Amherst, State University of New York (SUNY) Binghamton, Penn State University and University of Tennessee, respectively.

Mount students who were awarded these prestigious fellowships are researching and developing detection methods of the COVID-19 virus, new alternatives for solar power production, improved methods to prepare complex drug molecules like pharmaceuticals and natural products, and the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis. Each REU-Site consists of a group of approximately 10 undergraduates who work in the research programs of the host institution; each student is associated with a specific research project where they work closely with the faculty and other researchers. Fellowships include stipends and funds for housing and travel.

“NSF-REU programs provide great opportunities for our students to learn new skills, expand their professional networks and gain valuable experience for their post-Mount careers,” said Assistant Professor of Chemistry Patrick Lombardi, Ph.D., who promotes the NSF-REU opportunities in his general chemistry course. The five fellowship recipients applied to REU-Sites at the start of the 2021 spring semester.

Within their applications, students explain how their research will prepare them for their future careers and establish which principal investigators at the funding site they are most interested in working alongside. Once accepted, the students are paired with a principal investigator’s research group for about 8 to10 weeks during the summer.

“The NSF fellowships are competitive, and students will often first spend a summer conducting research at the Mount in order to gain the necessary laboratory experience before applying for external fellowships as rising juniors and seniors,” Lombardi added.

Lombardi, who received his Bachelor of Science in chemistry from Yale University and earned his doctoral degree in chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania, is an active advocate for student research opportunities. He serves as principal investigator for a three-year $433,784 National Institutes of Health Academic Research Enhancement Award the Mount received to fund student research.

Elaina Perry // State University of New York (SUNY) Binghamton

Perry first heard about the fellowship in Lombardi’s class, and later was encouraged by Garth Patterson, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Science, Office of Competitive Fellowships faculty advisor and associate professor of chemistry, to apply her junior year during Christmas break.

elaina-perry_headshot-in-text.jpegThe biology major, with minors in chemistry and philosophy, gained research experience when she worked with Lombardi to investigate the binding interactions between ASCC2 and polyubiquitin chains—two proteins responsible for DNA alkylation damage repair.

“I was very excited to receive acceptance for the REU program at Binghamton University,” Perry said. Along with her cohort of nine other students, she was chosen from a pool of 2,500 applicants. “It is a true honor to be selected and I am grateful for the privilege to participate in the program.”

She is currently in Binghamton, New York, and began researching on May 31. Her work on this project will culminate with presentation of her research at an NSF conference on August 6.

What appealed to you about SUNY Binghamton?

Renowned with 23 innovative research facilities, SUNY Binghamton is one of the top research universities in the U.S. With my innate passion for medicine, I have also always been interested in molecular biochemistry. The biomedical engineering NSF-REU at SUNY offered an opportunity compatible with all of my interests.

Tell me about your principal investigator and his research background.

I am working in the lab of Chuan-Jian Zhong. Ph.D. As a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, he is distinguished with many awards and research focused on sustainable energy production, conversion and storage, environmental sustainability and chemical and biomedical detection.

Describe your research.

We are using interfacial chemistry to develop detection methods of the COVID-19 virus. Using a paper membrane-based surface-enhanced Raman Scattering (SERS) platform, we are developing a nanocomposite probe that detects the virus in seconds. Our goal is to achieve an ultrasensitive, rapid and low-cost detection method.

My prospective probe consists of 30nm gold nanoparticles, modified with 4-mercaptobenzoic acid, conjugated with a specific viral detection antibody. This method of SERS detection is applicable to many diseases including cancer biomarker detection.

How will this research prepare you for your future career?

I am 21 years old and still have many questions about what I would like to do with the rest of my life. This experience provides me the opportunity of 10 weeks of strict research. It also exposes me to aspects of the research field that are not apparent in a three-hour course laboratory.

With this exposure, I hope to gain clarity for my future aspirations. At the same time, I am contributing to groundbreaking medical research that has incredible potential to help others.

Jared Hampton // University of Massachusetts Amherst

A chemistry major with minors in mathematics and philosophy, Hampton first heard about the fellowships during his sophomore year from Patterson. Later, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Isaac Mills, Ph.D., also mentioned the opportunity.

jared-hampton_headshot-in-text.jpgHampton has had two other research experiences during his time at the Mount. “I have done research since the spring semester of 2020 with Dr. Mills. We are synthesizing zinc complexes to be used in a dye-sensitized solar cell as another alternative solution for photovoltaic cells,” he said.

“I was ecstatic when hearing I was able to go to UMass-Amherst. I did have to wait a year, as it was intended for summer 2020 before COVID-19 happened,” Hampton explained. “I wanted to go somewhere that had research programs that interested me. I wanted to work in a program that focused on photovoltaic devices—and UMass-Amherst had a program that did so.”

He began research on May 30 and his 10-week program will end on August 6. Hampton intends to pursue a doctoral degree and considers the REU to be excellent preparation.

Tell me more about your principal investigator and your research.

I am working with my principal investigator, Associate Professor of Chemistry Kevin Kittilstved, Ph.D., who focuses on inorganic chemistry and leads the multifunctional inorganic materials chemistry (MIMC) research group at UMass-Amherst.

My proposed research is creating a new alternative for solar power production called a perovskite solar cell. This research helps me prepare for my future career and graduate school by giving me more research experience.

How arduous was the application process?

 My application process included practicing concise scientific writing, two recommendation letters and a résumé. I want to thank the Mount St. Mary’s Science Department for helping me achieve this position. I specifically want to thank Dr. Mills for providing the research experience needed for this project and Dr. Patterson for helping during the application process.

Santino Servagno // Penn State University

“I was very excited and shocked when I discovered I had been awarded a place in the program,” said the chemistry major with minors in business and mathematics. “It boosted my confidence that I can pursue a career in chemistry and go to graduate school and helped sow away my doubt that I had about going into the field.”

santino-servagno_headshot-in-text.jpgHe conducted research this academic year with Professor of Chemistry Patricia Kreke, Ph.D., and Professor of Chemistry Danny Miles Jr., Ph.D. “I examined surfactant morphology on the size and shape of nanoparticles. The synthesized surfactants will be used to assist in production of gold nanoparticles whose size and shape-specific properties enable it to overcome organ-specific barriers and target therapeutics to treat individual cancer sites,” he explained. Last summer he worked under the supervision of Patterson to construct a thermal imaging sensor.

Servagno, who is a Mount Fellow, is currently at State College and began his summer research on June 1 and will complete it on August 6.

Why did you choose Penn State University as your REU-Site?

Penn State has a reputation for a very good graduate chemistry program and as an institution that conducts novel research with high-tech instrumentation that will expose me to a graduate school lab environment. On a non-scientific level, as a Pennsylvania resident, State College is known as a nice area to live, and I knew I would enjoy my time at the program (both during work and outside of work) and be relatively close to home so I can see my family and friends throughout the summer.

Tell me more about your principal investigator and your research.

The lab I work in this summer is run by Dr. Eric Nacsa whose background is synthetic organic chemistry. His research interests are to discover new methods to prepare complex drug molecules by deriving novel chemical reagents, reactions and catalysts.

My proposed research is the rapid catalytic addition of vicinal positioned functional groups on olefins in a single step. This rapid formation of vicinal stereoarrays improves chemical methodologies for the more efficient synthesis of complex drug molecules such as pharmaceuticals and natural products.

What are your future plans and how will this experience aid your goals?   

I would like to further my education by going to graduate school to get my Ph.D. in organic chemistry. After graduate school, my career goal is to become a synthetic organic chemistry in the pharmaceutical industry.

The NSF-REU fellowship is preparing me for graduate school by exposing me to lab equipment and techniques and training me to work efficiently in a graduate school environment.

Thomas Gamble // University of Georgia

Gamble began his fellowship on May 24 at the University of Georgia. The biology major plans to attend medical school and become a trauma surgeon.

thomas-gamble_headshot-in-text.jpg“Although molecular biology research has no direct application to medicine and even surgery, I hope that some of the skills and knowledge I gain this summer will aid me in becoming a well-rounded physician,” he said.

Gamble first heard about the fellowship from Patterson, who provided feedback and guidance on Gamble’s statements and application. “The application process required a decent amount of work, but it was well worth it, and I was very excited to learn that UGA had chosen me to participate in their REU program,”  Gamble said.

Please describe your research.

I am studying how effector protein PE17 of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis, interacts with the lipid droplets of host cells. Doing so has involved generating plasmids that encode proteins to which fluorescent markers are attached and then transforming these plasmids into yeast cells, our model system.

We then observe via fluorescence microscopy how these proteins (PE17 and proteins specific to distinct organelles) colocalize at organelles such as lipid droplets and mitochondria. Previous literature has suggested that expression of PE17 results in fragmentation of the mitochondria, and we are interested in investigating this issue further.

What appealed to you about the University of Georgia?

UGA was one of the REU programs I just happened to apply to, so I did not research this university prior to my acceptance. After learning of my acceptance, however, I did research UGA and was thrilled to learn of its beautiful campus, reputation for academics and status as an R1 university.

I am currently working with Dr. Vincent Starai, a professor in the microbiology department at UGA. Dr. Starai is working on several projects, all of which consider how certain intracellular bacteria, such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Wolbachia, secrete effector proteins that facilitate interactions with eukaryotic host cells.

Describe your previous research experience at the Mount.

I have completed research with Associate Professor of Biology Kathryn Dye, Ph.D., for four semesters. During the first two semesters, we studied how disrupting the unfolded protein response via plasmid transfection might affect viral production. We began this project by treating HUVEC cells with thapsigargin, an inducer of Endoplasmic Reticulum (ER) stress, and then measuring ER stress through quantitative detection of spliced X-box binding protein-1 (XBP1) mRNA.

After returning to campus in Fall 2020, we turned our sights toward human coronavirus. We began investigating how treating RAW 264.7 cells with the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 upregulates the expression of TNF-α, a proinflammatory cytokine, and have used ELISA and qPCR to measure this expression.

Mary Yenca // University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Yenca says she heard about the NSF-REU program from many of the professors in the Mount’s Department of Science. “Each professor stressed this opportunity to research at a large institution in a new environment would provide a beneficial learning experience as well as preparation for future endeavors—particularly graduate school,” she noted.

mary-yenca_headshot-in-text.jpgThrough their guidance, her application, personal statement and other materials took shape. While each REU-Site location had different requirements, Yenca focused on the University of Tennessee in Knoxville (UTK) because of its emphasis on finding students with a passion for chemistry.

“Given its well-established reputation and the fantastic opportunities offered from the NSF-REU program and the UTK Department of Chemistry, I was beyond excited to learn I had been accepted,” she reflected. The chemistry and biochemistry double major, and Mount Fellow, began her research on May 24 and will complete the program on July 30. While nervous about being in a different state and working with a new research group, Yenca admitted her anxiety disappeared once she received a warm welcome from both her principal investigator and a next-door neighbor who was also participating in the REU.

Why did you choose UTK?

I was attracted to the REU location there because of the great diversity of research their department has in both their overall chemistry program and in the integration of several fields of chemistry research within distinct groups.

I was also interested in this program because of its emphasis on graduate school preparedness. Their REU is designed to be a training experience for one pursuing a graduate degree, which I intend to do after graduation. This is done through their several workshops and trainings covering a wide variety of useful topics including ethical research conduct and scientific writing and presentations.

Talk about your research group and mentor.

I am working with Dr. Jonathan Brantley’s group, an organic chemistry research group which also covers a great range of polymer and inorganic chemistry, so I am learning skills in new areas of chemistry and strengthening those in my familiar areas.

I am working under the mentorship of Alan Fried, one of the graduate students in the Brantley research group. He has trained me on the countless new technique instruments I am using and seamlessly guided me through my transition into this group. He and fellow graduate students Nick Galan and Brenna Wilson are passionate and talented research scientists I am grateful to learn from.

Describe the research you’ve already completed at the Mount.

I have been a member of Dr. Isaac Mill’s research group since January 2020 where I have worked on synthesizing pyrylium salt dyes for application in dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSCs). I plan on expanding into this research for my senior research project with the synthesis of bipyrylium salts and the effect of their structure on the tenability of the photophysical properties of pyryliums.

Fellow peer collaborators on the pyrylium project include Casey Spiridopoulos and recent graduates and Mount fellows Kerri Czekner, C’21, and Nicholas Starvaggi, C’21. Other members of our research group are NSF-REU fellowship recipient Jared Hampton, C’22, and another recent graduate Bradley Owen, C’21.

Nicole Patterson