The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) Department is fortunate to have a multitude of graduate students within its Biochemistry, Microbiology and Molecular Biology (BMMB) Program dedicated to developing their research and teaching skills. Our students are making discoveries and generating independent knowledge through their research within our labs.
Meet Lynnicia Massenburg, a graduate student working towards earning her Ph.D. in the Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology (BMMB) Program. Lynnicia, a native of Aston, Pennsylvania, didn’t always have an interest in pursuing her education in science. For as long as she can remember she has had a passion for the arts and initially planned to pursue a degree in art and graphic design with the hopes of one day developing graphics for video games.
Lynnicia shared her passion for the arts with a love of science, a fact she credits to her dad. “My dad studied computer science and he would show me how to troubleshoot computers when I was a kid,” said Lynnicia. “We would watch Nova science programming and have star-gazing bonfire nights rambling on about the universe.” In the end she switched her sights towards a career in science, earning her Bachelor of Science degree in Biotechnology from Rutgers University in 2013, and her Master of Science degree in Plant Biology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2017.
Lynnicia chose Penn State to pursue her Ph.D. because of the University’s emphasis on student mentoring, collaboration across colleges, and the University’s diverse training opportunities in both research and teaching. With her background in plant biology, she appreciated the support she received from the faculty with regards to her transition into fundamental biochemistry research. Moreover, she was attracted to Penn State by the cutting-edge research being conducted at the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation.
Lynnicia currently works under the guidance of Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Tracy Nixon. The Nixon lab investigates a plant membrane protein called cellulose synthase and seeks to understand how the proteins group together to form larger protein structures referred to as cellulose synthase complexes, or rosettes. Lynnicia’s research focuses on the structure of the cellulose synthase membrane protein and utilizes a technique called cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM).
Using cryo-EM, Lynnicia is mapping the 3D shape of cellulose synthase and interpreting clues towards its overall function. “Membrane proteins are quite challenging to study, but I have the resources as a Sloan Scholar and support to take on this project,” said Lynnicia. Her research is part of a larger effort led by the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation at Penn State. Through her work researchers will be able to develop a clearer understanding of how plant fibers are made. This information will grant researchers the ability to gain insight into biofuel crop improvements as well as more efficient fiber breakdown for fuel and materials.
When not in the lab, Lynnicia enjoys taking care of her pet ball python, Jabari. Growing up her family always had reptiles for pets, and “I figured I’d contribute to our family’s collection of reptile companions,” said Lynnicia. Sparked through a photo club she joined as part of Penn State’s Multicultural Engineering Graduate Association (MEGA), she has also developed a growing interest in photography.
Lynnicia loves merging her love of science with her passion for the arts and has been making hand-crafted protein structure jewelry since 2013. She says it provides her a form of therapy and an opportunity for outreach. “My goal was to present science, especially biochemistry, to the public in a simple and whimsical way,” says Lynnicia. “Even kids participated in making their own protein structures out of colorful pipe cleaners at a science outreach booth I ran at a local craft show. I enjoy crafting these protein structures to a scale that captures the complexity of these proteins with visual appeal.”
Lynnicia credits her mom as being her biggest life motivator, helping her remain strong and visualize her true potential. “She encouraged me to be an artist in science, and a scientist in art. She gives me the drive to have a voice and keep pushing forward in my research,” says Lynnicia. The title of her biggest motivator when it comes to science, she gives to her dad. “He has a motto that he told me almost every day as a kid that sticks with me to this day,” she said. His motto is "Education is paramount, preparation is the key to success, school is cool!"
Unfortunately, Lynnicia experienced her greatest setback in life on April 15, 2019, as a second-year graduate student, when her dad unexpectedly passed away. “I’m still coping with grief at the loss of my dad,” she says. Now in spirit, her dad continues to do what he had done Lynnicia’s entire life, motivating his daughter to continue her love of science and further her education. “I’m pursuing this doctorate in honor of my dad, who never had a chance to finish his associate’s degree in computer science,” said Lynnicia.