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Chemistry student researches antibiotic removal method for water supply
14 July 2020
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David Kennedy

Penn State Schreyer Scholar David Kennedy, a rising senior in chemical engineering and chemistry, is using an Erickson Discovery Grant to work on a growing problem: rising drug resistance potentially due to increasing amounts of antibiotics found in the water supply.

The Erickson Discovery Grant Program was established to support undergraduate students during the summer as they pursue original projects under the mentorship of a faculty member. The program was named in honor of the University’s 17th president, Rodney A. Erickson. The grant provides each recipient with funding of $3,500 to support the student’s summer research.

Due to COVID-19 concerns, Kennedy is conducting his research remotely, working with graduate students in the Bio-Soft Materials Laboratory (B-SMaL), led by Amir Sheikhi, assistant professor of chemical engineering. 

“The research I will be doing with Dr. Sheikhi this summer will focus on functionalizing biopolymers through chemical modifications to develop a soft material platform that will interact and bind with certain types of antibiotics in water and remove them from contaminated sources,” Kennedy said.

As doctors more commonly prescribe antibiotics, the presence of medicine continues to increase in the water supply. A 2010 study by the United States Geologic Survey detected a variety of antibiotics such as azithromycin, sulfamethoxazole, ciprofloxacin and others in 11 of 12 sampling sites in Ohio. Antibiotics may get into the water several ways including via sewage, improper disposal of unused or expired drugs, and from livestock agriculture antibiotics use. 

According to Kennedy, biopolymers are environmentally friendly platforms that can be physically and/or chemically modified for removing antibiotics from water. They are molecules derived from natural resources, such as plants and animals, which are all biorenewable, biodegradable, and cost effective.  

“People can become resistant to antibiotics from even just trace amounts in water,” Kennedy said. “If we can develop methods to remove antibiotics efficiently and in an environmentally friendly manner, it can help retain the efficacy of antibiotics so they can continue to be prescribed to fight off infections.” 

Prior to this work, Kennedy has already assembled an impressive undergraduate research resume. He spent his first two years at Penn State researching wastewater treatment and algae biofuels with Wayne Curtis, professor of chemical engineering. Last summer, he participated in a research experience for undergraduates program at Utah State University where he worked in a medicinal chemistry lab. While there, he synthesized, purified and analyzed a series of modified antibiotics to maintain the effectiveness of the antibiotics. 

Kennedy became interested in Sheikhi’s work and the B-SMaL lab while taking Sheikhi’s CHE430: Chemical Reaction Engineering course in fall 2019. 

“David learned about how chemical reactions can help us develop new materials that may benefit millions of people in the world and wanted to contribute to our research efforts on that front,” Sheikhi said. 

Kennedy spent a semester in the B-SMaL lab prior to his Erickson Discovery Grant research and contributed to two book chapters currently under review by the Royal Society of Chemistry. 

“David is highly passionate about soft material engineering and chemistry,” Sheikhi said. “Passion, curiosity, and dedication are the main requirements to join my lab, and David has all of them.”

Along with his Erickson Discovery Grant work, Kennedy is nearing the end of a six-month co-op term with Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Boston. There he has been working as a medicinal chemist, helping to optimize the company’s drug synthesis methods. Upon completion of his undergraduate degrees, Kennedy plans to pursue a doctoral degree in organic chemistry and then enter the pharmaceutical industry as a medicinal chemist.

“I find it fascinating and inspiring to be able to apply the theory we learn in the classroom to researching methods that will be useful to society at large,” Kennedy said.