University of Vermont

University Communications

UVM Students’ Research Supported by Beckman Scholars Program

Nathan Gasek undergraduate research Beckman Scholar
“It’s not so much an obligation,” junior Nathan Gasek says of the research he’s conducting in Professor’s Jim Vigoreaux’s lab. “It’s more something that you’re excited to do.” His work is supported by the Beckman Scholars Program, a national funding source that has chosen UVM as a partner school in large part, Vigoreaux says, thanks to the quality of undergraduate mentorship the faculty provides. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Nationwide, there are only 61 undergraduates who are part of the prestigious Beckman Scholars Program. At the University of Vermont, there will soon be five.

Sponsored by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, the Beckman Scholars Program is awarded to 12 institutions annually to support research in biology, zoology, biological science, biochemistry, chemistry and neuroscience at the undergraduate level. The three current scholarship recipients, juniors Liam Kelley, Anna Schmoker,and Nathan Gasek, are majoring in biochemistry, chemistry and biology, respectively. Two more recipients will be named in late April.

At UVM, the funded projects are comparable to what might be found in graduate-level labs. Kelley’s project title is “Investigation into Orientation and Cellular Function of SMIM1”; he’s continuing his work with Bryan Ballif, associate professor of biology, who investigates rare blood groups. With a colleague in France, Ballif has shown that SMIM1, a protein, is the basis of a rare blood type known as Vel. People who are Vel-negative lack SMIM1, which can result in an adverse reaction to a blood transfusion. Kelley has been looking at the roles of SMIM1 in cells.

Anna Schmoker is in the lab of Giuseppe Petrucci, associate professor of chemistry. Schmoker’s research title is “Development and Characterization of a Quantitative Method for Respirable Nanoparticle Risk Assessment,” and she’s looking at metal and metal-oxides to help improve the accuracy of risk assessment of such inhalable nanoparticles — caused by particulate pollution and consumer products, for example — to human health. Using an in vitro exposure chamber Petrucci built some time ago, Schmoker has been able to introduce nanoparticles from an aerosol onto cell cultures at the air-liquid interface through electrostatic precipitation. She says that provides an accurate model of physiological exposure, a window into what happens when we inhale nanoparticles and the effects they have when they come into contact with lung tissue. Being a Beckman Scholar has meant Schmoker has more time to devote to the project, which, like the in vitro chamber, had been left largely untouched for some time.

“These topics are advanced,” says Jim Vigoreaux, professor and chair of biology, and coordinator of the university’s application to the Beckman Scholars Program. “All of the current scholars are truly gifted.”

The Beckman Foundation invited 153 institutions to apply for the program, which is by invitation only; of those, some 72 completed applications, according to Sarah Easterbrook, the program’s administrator. There were 35 finalists, out of which the final 12 schools were selected. Among them are Wake Forest University, Bowdoin College, Boston University and Texas A&M.

Once they’d been notified that UVM had been chosen, professors in the relevant disciplines were invited to nominate 12 students total — roughly the top one percent of that population — based on a combination of a grade point average of 3.5 or higher and other relevant distinctions. The application process called for essays on career goals and long-term research interests, and a letter of recommendation from a UVM faculty member. Of those students, six were then chosen to submit final applications, which included a research proposal, an interview with the selection committee to fully outline the significance of their research and their interest in it, and a letter of support from a faculty member who would serve as mentor.

Faculty-student mentorship

Vigoreaux says the Beckman Foundation institutional application called for a complete listing of potential faculty mentors and their credentials, adding that it was in large part because of those high-caliber mentors that UVM was selected.

“One of the criteria they looked at is how good are these people in mentoring undergraduate students as measured by research publications authored by undergraduate students,” says Vigoreaux. “So clearly we were funded because we have really good people here. That’s what it all boils down to.”

The Beckman provides each student with a $21,000 stipend that includes $2,800 for supplies and travel, ensuring students two opportunities to present their work: at the annual summer symposium at the Beckman Center of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering in Irvine, Cal., and at a scientific conference of their mentor’s choosing. The ideal goal, says Vigoreaux, is publication.

The program spans two summers and the academic year that bridges them. Students are expected to spend 40 hours per week in the lab during the summer and 10 hours per week — through a research course — during the school year. But, says Nathan Gasek, they rarely limit themselves.

“Realistically, you’re putting a lot more time into it because it’s not so much an obligation — it’s more something that you’re excited to do,” he says. He’s conducting his own project, “An Investigation of the Role of the Amino and Carboxyl Terminal Region of Flightin and Their Contributions to Thick Filament Properties in Drosophila Flight Muscle,” as a member of Vigoreaux’s lab. Flightin is a protein the lab has focused on because of its role in binding proteins in fruit fly muscles, allowing them to assemble and function correctly.

Gasek, who is contemplating pursuing a combined PhD/MD degree, says the Beckman Scholarship has helped him access resources — even outside the biology department — that as an undergraduate he otherwise might not have been able to, including the atomic force microscope. His efforts, like Kelley’s and Schmoker’s, are not insignificant.

“[Gasek’s] project is technically very challenging, and yet he has managed to complete the data collection much sooner than I had anticipated,” says Vigoreaux. “So now we are in the enviable position of doing additional experiments we had not anticipated doing when he started.”

There are no limits to the number of times an institution can apply to the Beckman Scholars Program, and Vigoreaux is already planning on starting a new application when this funding ends in 2016.