The Department of Chemistry is pleased to announce that thirteen chemistry students have been named the recipients of the Stephen and Patricia Benkovic Summer Research Award in Chemistry. Ameen Bader, Joseph Cardina, Poom Chantarapornrat, Morgan Dierolf, Steven Ganescu, Hannah Gizenski, Anna Griggs, Farraz Haider, Ruoqing Jia, Zachary Marcus, Devon Sweeder, Emily Thompson, and Max Weissberger are the 2021 recipients of the award.
Conducting research in a lab is one of the most important elements of chemistry education. Research experiences allow students to develop as scientists and gain practical skills and experience. That’s why Evan Pugh University Professor of Chemistry Stephen Benkovic and his wife Patricia Benkovic established the Benkovic Research Scholarship, which supports these important educational experiences for chemistry majors. The Benkovic award provides financial support for undergraduates who are conducting outstanding unpaid research on campus under the direction of a faculty member.
Ameen Bader will be working with the Okafor group this summer, led by Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and of Chemistry Denise Okafor. He will be focused on studying the Farnesoid X receptor (FXR). Previous studies showed that fexaramine, an FXR agonist, can help prevent obesity in mice. Bader will be using molecular dynamics simulations to model the binding of fexaramine and fexaramine derivatives, as well as other ligands, to FXR nuclear receptors. He will then quantify the allosteric signaling of these FXR-ligand complexes using network analysis. “Being named a Benkovic scholar is an honor,” says Bader. “This award will give me the opportunity to fully focus on research and make the most of these summer months.”
Joseph Cardina is a rising junior who will be conducting research with the Hedglin lab, led by Assistant Professor of Chemistry Mark Hedglin. Cardina will be examining encounters of DNA polymerase delta—the lagging strand polymerase—with various biologically relevant DNA lesions. By examining the interactions of DNA polymerase delta, he hopes to gain insight into DNA damage pathways and mutagenesis. Cardina adds, “being a Benkovic scholar gives me the opportunity to give back to the scientific community that has gotten me thus far, while still being able to indulge in a research project that I am very excited for.”
Poom Chantarapornrat is a rising junior in chemistry major. He plans to work with the Zhou group—led by Assistant Professor of Chemistry Ruobo Zhou—to build a super-resolution fluorescent microscope and use it to observe live cell processes. The microscope can observe nano-scale objects such as cytoskeletons like microtubules. The Zhou group is interested in studying a process called liquid-liquid phase separation that occurs during neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. If this process is well understood, it might be possible to develop more effective treatments for these diseases. Chantarapornrat will be focusing on developing software to control the compartments of the microscope and apply machine learning algorithms to analyze the data obtained from the microscope. “Being named a Benkovic scholar is very prestigious to me as an international student,” Chantarapornrat notes. “I’m very much looking forward to spending the summer in State College and getting to experience the cutting edge technology from Dr. Zhou’s group.”
Morgan Dierolf is a rising junior who will be conducting research with the Elacqua group this summer. She will be working with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Beth Elacqua to research the change in structure of a pyridine-iodopentafluorobenzene co-crystal at high pressure. “Being a Benkovic Scholar is an incredible privilege and a way for me to further my understanding of chemistry,” Dierolf adds.
Steven Ganescu is a first-year chemistry major. He plans to work with Associate Teaching Professor Joseph Houck to develop affordable, at-home experiments for the World Campus section of CHEM 111. “I am honored to be named a Benkovic scholar because it provides me with the opportunity to conduct research to a good cause and develop professionally,” notes Ganescu. “I am interested in research and developing an appreciation for chemistry in others, so I am so thankful for this award.”
Hannah Gizenski is a rising junior; over the summer, she will be working in the Cotruvo lab—led by Louis Martarano Career Development Professor of Chemistry Joseph Cotruvo—to utilize a lanthanide-binding protein to develop a specific sensor for terbium via luminesce. “I’m really excited to be a Benkovic scholar to learn about working in a lab,” she adds. “To me, it’s about being able to have the next generation of chemistry researchers know what it’s like to be involved in research and the processes behind it.”
Anna Griggs is a rising junior who will be conducting research with the Elacqua group this summer. She will be working with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Beth Elacqua to research the synthesis of single-chain polymer nanoparticles. “I am grateful to be given the opportunity to research with the Benkovic award and expand my knowledge over the summer,” Griggs says. “I hope to honor the name of this award by contributing to necessary polymer chemistry research.”
Farraz Haider is a rising junior who will be conducting research with the Elacqua group, led by Assistant Professor of Chemistry Beth Elacqua. “Being named a Benkovic scholar is an incredible honor for me,” says Haider. “Having the opportunity to apply the knowledge I have gained over the past few years is an amazing opportunity and I am beyond grateful for it!” He plans to work with Elacqua group graduate student Steven Huss to produce carbon nanothreads, which have various applications due to their strong carbon core and small size. Haider will focus on finding different carbon-based molecules as well as different conditions to find the lowest possible reaction pressures for these threads.
Ruoqing Jia is a rising senior who is double majoring in nutrition and chemistry. She plans to work with the Freedman group, led by Professor of Chemistry Miriam Freedman. She will work with group member Dr. Lucy Nandy to investigate how aerosols or particulate matter emissions are transported in a classroom. As air can contain harmful particles and viruses that spread easily and have adverse health outcomes, it is important to study particle concentrations in classrooms.
Zachary Marcus is a senior chemistry major. This summer, he plans to conduct research with Teaching Professor Bratoljub Milosavljevic. Marcus will study the crosslinking mechanism in the co-polymer, polyethylene-poly(vinyl alcohol. Specifically, this research seeks to elucidate what happens to the bonds in the co-polymer when it is hydrated and irradiated with varying doses of gamma radiation. The co-polymer will be studied using infrared spectroscopy, differential scanning calorimetry, and tension testing. “I am grateful for the recognition of my scholastic achievements,” Marcus notes. “I am also glad to be able to continue my research during the summer semester before I graduate. It is truly an amazing opportunity to be able to conduct research at Penn State and be able to share my research with my peers.”
Devon Sweeder is a rising senior chemistry major who will be conducting research with the Pester group, led by K. Hepler Early Career Professor in Chemical Engineering Christian Pester. This summer, she will be working on a project to impart multiple functionalities into surface coatings via surface-initiated polymerization techniques. “I sincerely appreciate the opportunities given to me by Penn State and am proud to be a part of the Department of Chemistry. I am truly grateful, honored and humbled to receive the Benkovic Scholarship,” Sweeder says. “I am fascinated by the numerous applications of polymer surface coatings as well as the current limitations in the field, and the Benkovic scholarship gives me the necessary resources to continue my work this summer.”
Emily Thompson is a rising senior in the chemistry major; she plans to conduct research with Teaching Professor Dan Sykes this summer. Thompson will be developing a method to effectively identify microplastics in a variety of sample types including dirty water, sediment, and shellfish samples. After conducting the proper sample prep, Thompson will utilize Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) to identify key bonds of extracted compounds in samples, allowing Thompson and Sykes to characterize microplastics they contain. “Being a Benkovic scholar has created the opportunity for me to apply all the amazing knowledge I learn in my classes to an area of chemistry that I am passionate about,” notes Thompson. “Not only am I applying this knowledge, I am also receiving valuable hands-on experience that I will practically be using in future jobs in the chemistry field.”
Max Weissberger is a rising senior who will be conducting research with the Knappenberger group, led by Professor of Chemistry Ken Knappenberger. He plans to use dark field microscopy and spectroscopy to measure the plasmon resonances of gold nanorods as well as measure how their resonances are affected when they are on other materials, such as graphene. He will also be assisting in the development of a fourier-based optical microscope to study these nanoparticles with increased resolution. “This is an exciting opportunity that will allow me to explore research in chemistry and help to prepare me for a future career in chemistry,” Weissberger adds.
Please join the Department of Chemistry in congratulating these chemistry majors on receiving this exciting award.