Three More Undergraduates Join Beckman Program

Three More Undergraduates Join Beckman Program

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Beckman Scholar James Dombrowski '05 is building more than carbon molecules in the lab. He's building dreams.

Erin Donnelly '05, a biology major studying cell division in sea urchins, is one of five students now working with faculty under a grant from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation that supports research by outstanding undergraduates in chemistry and biology. Photo by Suzanne Camarata.
"What I really enjoy most about chemistry is that it is a creative process - almost an art," said the junior from Wilmette, Ill., who is working with Prof. Lawrence Scott (Chemistry) to create tiny and ultra-strong nanostructures nicknamed Buckyballs and Buckytubes with applications from computer chips to bulletproof vests.

"Chemistry gives me the ability to create new and useful things that the world has never seen," said Dombrowski. "It gives me an opportunity to apply my talents not only to something that I genuinely enjoy but to something that could benefit society as well."

Dombrowski is one of three new Beckman Scholars working with BC science faculty under a grant from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation that supports research by outstanding undergraduate students in chemistry and biology.

Others in the latest Beckman class are Jason Chalifoux '04 of Wellesley, Mass., researching with Assoc. Prof. Grant Balkema (Biology) the molecular biology of the eye, and Erin Donnelly '05, of Overland Park, Kan., studying cell division in sea urchins with Prof. David Burgess (Biology).

They bring to five the number of Beckman Scholars currently pursuing research in BC labs under the foundation grant awarded in 2001.

"These stellar undergraduates are completely integrated with the research team of graduate students and post-docs," said Scott. "They work side-by-side with advanced students and 'learn by doing.' In turn, they help advance our research programs by making valuable contributions to the advancement toward our objectives."
Donnelly, with Burgess, is using sea urchins to unlock the secrets of cell division, or mitosis. "The overall focus of our laboratory is to obtain an understanding of the signals within a cell that lead to mitosis and, eventually, the formation of two new cells by cytokinesis," she said.

Dombrowski is working with Scott to make molecules called fullerenes, or Buckyballs, that are elemental forms of carbon, and from there, carbon nanotubes, thousands of times smaller than a human hair but stronger than steel.

"Organic chemistry in particular fascinates me," Dombrowski, a Presidential Scholar, wrote in his Beckman application essay. "I find the logic problems of synthesis to be challenging, and the endless opportunities for harnessing the power of chemical synthesis astound me.

"Ropes could be built from carbon nanotubes that would be 40 times stronger than steel cord. Chemists have the potential to cure cancer, AIDS, and myriad other diseases."

Chalifoux is working with Balkema to determine the molecular composition of synaptic ribbons, electron-dense structures found in the pre-synaptic terminal of photorecepter and cochlea cells of the eye.

"From gazing at a distant star on a clear night to capturing the bright sun before an intense solar eclipse, light intensity can vary over a range of 10 orders of magnitude," Chalifoux said. "Synaptic ribbons are interesting because research suggests they give our vision and our hearing the ability to detect and transmit signals over a large range."

Beckman 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 Beckman Scholars.

During their second summer in the program, scholars participate in a two-day research symposium at which they have the opportunity to present their research and network with other scientists.

"The Beckman scholarship has helped my research tremendously," said Chalifoux. "Along with a generous stipend, the scholarship awards funds for travel and research supplies. The money for supplies has allowed me to engage in parallel experiments that will greatly increase my chances of discovering the synaptic ribbon proteins.

"Additionally, the foundation funded all the Beckman Scholars to go to the Beckman Center in Irvine, Calif., where we attended lectures given by prestigious researchers, two of whom were Nobel Prize Laureates."

The Beckman Scholars Program at BC is headed 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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