Mentoring the Next Generation of Scientists

First Beckman Scholars do more than observe in the laboratory

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Two talented undergraduate scientists are researching the building blocks of life and of matter as Boston College's inaugural Beckman Scholars.

Beckman Scholar Michael Raher '03 works under the watchful eye of Asst. Prof. Laura Hake (Biology). (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Thomas Kempa '04 is working with Prof. John Fourkas (Chemistry) on a project using laser microscopy to observe nanoparticles, some of the smallest units of matter.

Michael Raher '03 is studying molecular development in embryonic frogs in the laboratory of Asst. Prof. Laura Hake (Biology).

Their research is supported by an Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation grant that recognizes outstanding undergraduate students in chemistry and biological sciences research at select universities throughout the United States.

The Beckman Scholars Program is seen underscoring the commitment of BC science faculty to share the rewards of research with undergraduates.
"The program allows us to identify promising young research scientists and foster their development, early in their careers," said Hake. "Recognition by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation as a nationally competitive site for fostering undergraduate research is certainly an honor."

Scholars work on a research project with a faculty member full-time over the course of two summers and part-time during one academic year. They participate in weekly lab meetings, and meet monthly with other scholars.

The two scholars are enthusiastic about working with scientists like Hake and Fourkas, young faculty members who have already achieved considerable professional success. Fourkas has been the recipient of numerous fellowships and grants, including the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, given to outstanding scientists in the early years of their careers. Hake is the holder of a prestigious Clare Booth Luce Assistant Professorship, which provides full salary support and additional work-related expenses for promising women faculty.

Kempa, the son of Prof. Krzysztof Kempa (Physics), credited the boost the Beckman Scholarship has given his own budding research career.

"Science flourishes best when knowledge and imagination are in harmony," he said. "Imagination isn't any good if it has no bedrock of knowledge to stand on. Knowledge on its own will never suffice without imagination to push forward the revolutionary ideas that have shaped the progress of modern science.

"Coursework lays the groundwork; lab experience puts that groundwork to the test. Working in the lab, you're constantly faced with the unknown; you have no textbook, no class notes within which to find solutions. Of the idea of offering undergraduates the opportunity to have an early start in the research process, one thing is clear; research adds meaning to what is established as knowledge in class."

Prof. John Fourkas (Chemistry), left, discusses his project on metal nanoclusters with Beckman Scholar Thomas Kempa '04. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Kempa described the research he is conducting in Fourkas' chemistry lab using ultra-fast laser spectroscopy to observe the dynamics and novel physical behavior of metal nanoclusters, which can act as minute point sources of light when excited appropriately.

"If one can harness this light, the potential real-world applications are boundless, ranging from nanolasers, to ultra-thin flat panel displays that you may one day be able to pin-up like a college dorm-room poster. The study of the dynamics of molecular systems can also be made much easier by using metal nanoclusters as fluorescent probes. Imagine being able to observe protein folding or molecular rotation like in a real-time movie."

Kempa, who will present a talk next month at a national meeting of the American Chemical Society, said the program "opens both the mind and the vault of opportunity."

Raher is assisting Hake in her research on the molecular analysis of the regulation of protein synthesis, or "translational regulation," in eggs.

"While eggs are developing in the female - we study this in the frog, but similar processes occur in eggs of all animals - information molecules called 'messenger RNAs' are synthesized and stored in the egg in a quiescent form," explained Hake.

"During the very rapid cell divisions that characterize early animal development, this stored information is activated - 'messenger RNAs' are 'translated' - for use at specific times, and at specific locations in the cell.

"This means that all of the earliest developmental processes required for the genesis of an individual are orchestrated by information originating solely from the mother's genes.

"We have focused on a molecular machine that specifically recognizes this stored information and activates it for use during the earliest stages of development. We have been the one of the first research groups to identify some of the 'regulatory' proteins required for the proper functioning of this machine.

"Mike is working on the characterization of several of these regulatory proteins. He has obtained the full nucleotide sequences of the mRNAs encoding these proteins, and is in the process of examining the functions of these proteins, including their influences on egg development."

During their second summer in the program, scholars will participate in a two-day Annual Beckman Scholars Research Symposium where they will have the opportunity to present their research and network with other scientists.

The Beckman Scholars Program at BC is spearheaded by Assoc. Prof. Thomas Chiles (Biology) and Prof. Mary Roberts (Chemistry), with assistance from other research faculty members from the Biology and Chemistry departments.

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