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Graduate Student Highlight: Eli Wenger

30 March 2021
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Eli Wenger

Each week, the Department of Chemistry highlights graduate students who are doing great work around the department. In this installment of our highlight series, we are featuring Eli Wenger, who is a fourth-year student in the Bollinger-Krebs lab.

Eli works with enzymes, which are proteins that are responsible for catalyzing all kinds of interesting and challenging chemical reactions inside living organisms. The Bollinger-Krebs group is a *mechanistic* enzymology lab, which means that the lab uses a variety of kinetic and spectroscopic techniques to characterize the intermediate stages of these chemical reactions. With enough information about the intermediates, the lab can delineate the entire chemical pathway for a given enzyme. Specifically, Eli works with enzymes that use iron and molecular oxygen to break unactivated C-H bonds and achieve one of any number of oxidative transformations.

Outside of the lab, Eli was recently elected to his second term on the Chemistry Graduate Student Association (GSA) leadership board. Last year, Eli served as the vice president of the GSA and will be the treasurer this year. “The GSA is a great group of people, and it's been a lot of fun contributing to the department community through that organization,” notes Eli. 

Eli is also the coordinator of the Lion Lecture Series, a venue for older grad students to give a "practice defense" in a very laid back setting with students from all subdisciplines within chemistry. 

This week, we met virtually with Eli to discuss his life in and outside of the lab! Please enjoy our interview with Eli Wenger.
 
Question: What inspires you as a scientist?
 
Answer:
Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in one of his Sherlock Holmes stories, "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." This applies to mechanistic enzymology just as much as it does to solving murder mysteries! I love the challenge of designing and executing experiments that will allow you to eliminate the other possibilities at hand for a given system and drill down on the truth of what is happening, at a very detailed chemical level, inside the active site of an enzyme.
 
Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
 
A:
For this, I think I have to plug my one publication so far: “Evidence for Modulation of Oxygen Rebound Rate in Control of Outcome by Iron(II)- and 2-Oxoglutarate-Dependent Oxygenases.” This was a really fun paper to be a part of because we were able to publish the same set of results for three different enzymes all at once to strengthen our argument, so it was a highly collaborative endeavor and I learned a lot from my co-authors. I also like that the nature of the paper is, through rigorous analysis, making a relatively complex argument from a relatively simple set of experiments. I think it's elegant and has some intriguing implications for the family of enzymes we're studying.
 
Q: Where did you grow up? 
 
A:
I grew up and went to college in Harrisonburg, Virginia (nickname: The Friendly City). It's an amazing town, and I love going back every chance I get to see my whole family and many friends from all stages of life. 
 
Q: Do you have any hobbies?
 
A:
I like running, reading political nonfiction, hanging out with my roommates, and playing Mario.
 
Q: Do you have any pets?
 
A:
I have a 30-gallon fish tank that I've had since freshman year of college which currently contains, among many other fish, two pygmy puffer fish that are very entertaining. I also just got a hamster. She escaped twice in the first week I had her, so I think I need to get her a new cage.
 
Q: What’s your dream vacation? 
 
A:
It’s hard to decide between hiking in Iceland and the Galapagos. I'd rather be cold than hot, but I really want to see the tortoises. 
 
Q: If you could have dinner with anybody (living or dead), who would it be and why?
 
A:
Anybody who knows me knows that I would pick the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama. I'm fascinated by his journey and the decisions he had to make as President, and, in return for the inside scoop, I'd happily let him pick our meal. 
 
Bonus Question: Do you have any fun science trivia to share?

A: It’s not really relevant to my work, but I like that the formal, technical definition of a second is based on a certain number of vibrations of the Cesium atom (it's 9,192,631,770). This allows modern atomic clocks to be accurate to within one second every tens of millions of years.
 
Thanks to Eli for these excellent and thoughtful answers! We hope you enjoyed this interview. Stay tuned for more graduate student highlights in the weeks to come!