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Graduate Student Highlight: Evan Burke

25 August 2021
Burke, Evan

Each week, the Department of Chemistry highlights a graduate student who is doing interesting and exciting work within the department. In this installment of our highlight series, we are featuring Evan Burke, who is a second-year student in the Bollinger-Krebs group.

Evan’s research focuses on the mechanistic study of enzymes that use iron and oxygen to catalyze challenging and diverse chemical reactions. Currently, his project involves protein engineering of the ethylene forming enzyme (EFE), which converts a common and abundant metabolite (2-oxoglutarate) into valuable polymer precursor molecules in order to evolve it into a useful enzyme for green biocatalysis. 


Outside of the lab, Evan is involved in the Chemistry Graduate Student Association (GSA) outreach team, which puts on science events and demonstrations for local families and children. “Doing science outreach for children and young people has always been very enriching for me,” notes Evan. “I hope to continue with outreach and mentorship opportunities in the future.”

This week, we met virtually with Evan to discuss his life in and outside of the lab! Please enjoy our interview with Evan Burke.


Question: How did you get interested in chemistry?


I became interested in chemistry as a high school student when I was inspired by an exceptional chemistry teacher. I went to college for chemical engineering, but I discovered my passion for research with an undergraduate research experience and an internship at New England Biolabs. 


Q: What inspires you as a scientist?


I am inspired by my co-workers and the collaborative environment of a large research lab. Bringing together people from different backgrounds and expertise to brainstorm solutions to a problem is an extremely rewarding process for me.


Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of? (Either as a scientist, or otherwise)


My proudest scientific accomplishment is the publication of a year's work I did at New England Biolabs while on a postbaccalaureate research fellowship. We studied the unique role of certain enzymes that viruses of bacteria (a.k.a bacteriophage) use to create large modifications on their DNA and evade destruction by their host. It was a very rewarding project to work on, and the findings were recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science:


Q: Why did you decide to come to Penn State?


I decided to come to Penn State because I was so impressed with the research faculty and facilities when I came to visit. The bioinorganic chemistry group here has five labs all working collaboratively to create an incredible environment to study enzyme chemistry and mechanism. Most universities I thought about going to had one to three professors that I was interested in, whereas at Penn State there were six! This, in addition to the great campus and research facilities, convinced me to come here. 


Q: Where did you grow up? 


I grew up in Dallas, Texas until I was in elementary school, then I lived in Massachusetts


Q: Do you have any hobbies?


I really enjoy rock climbing; there is a great indoor gym in Boalsburg that I go to frequently. It is a great way to get a workout that is also fun and exciting. I also enjoy playing guitar and playing board games with friends. 


Q: What’s your favorite way to spend a day off?


I love to hang out with friends and play games of all kinds. On a nice day, I'd play games in the park like badminton, frisbee, and spikeball. In the evenings, I would make a nice dinner and play board games.


Q: What’s your dream vacation? 


My dream vacation would be to go to Peru and see the Andes mountains and Machu Pichu. The sights look so beautiful, and the ancient history of the Incan civilization has always fascinated me. 


Q: If you could have dinner with anybody (living or dead), who would it be and why? (And what would you eat?)


I would have dinner with my great-great-grandfather on my dad's side of the family, who has a very cool heritage story. Supposedly, he represented local tenant farmers in Ireland as they stood up to their oppressive local lord and brought their grievances to court. He was evicted from his land and came to America for a new life and new opportunities, which is why my family is here today. It probably wouldn't be a very tasty meal, but I'd like to eat the same food that poor tenant farmers ate then (probably boiled cabbage and potatoes) to get a sense of what it would have been like to live at that time. 


Bonus Question: Do you have any fun science trivia to share?


It isn't related to my research, but my favorite science trivia is that the mitochondria inside our cells have their own DNA that is different from the human DNA. This is because, billions of years ago, early eukaryotic cells engulfed bacteria and effectively turned them into an organelle over millions of years of evolution. Many people know about symbiotic relationships in nature (like the fish that clean out a sharks teeth) but don't know that the cells in our body are an example of this. This is known as the endosymbiotic theory, and I think it is a really cool fact about the development of life.

Thanks to Evan for these interesting and thoughtful answers! We hope you enjoyed this interview. Stay tuned for more graduate student highlights in the weeks to come!