Chemistry: Chance encounter helps solidify rare internship opportunity
Tiffany Onifer, a senior chemistry major at Waynesburg University, had no idea that a brief, chance meeting in March 2013 at PITTCON, the world’s largest annual premier conference and exposition on laboratory science conference, would lead to an internship and eventually, graduate school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
Not knowing who they were until after the conversation, Onifer met the retired chair of Vanderbilt's Chemistry Department and Centennial Professor David Hercules and his wife at the conference. They spoke casually about the day’s session and about Onifer’s ambitions of pursuing an M.D. /Ph.D. degree.
When the evening ended, Onifer invited the couple to attend her poster session, “The characterization of prepared immobilized β-cyclodextrin beads and their binding affinity with enkephalin neuropeptides in microdialysis sampling,” later that week.
Onifer presented her poster session with Dr. Heidi Fletcher, assistant professor of chemistry at Waynesburg University. She and Fletcher’s Waynesburg University research on β-cyclodextrin beads has gained regional and national attention. The duo has given numerous presentations across the nation about the beads and their binding affinity. Despite her experience presenting research, Onifer was still surprised that she garnered the attention of Mr. and Mrs. Hercules.
“They came to my session! I gave them my resume and within a week I was contacted by the head of graduate admissions at Vanderbilt,” Onifer said. “Admissions asked that I compose a list of names of faculty that I was interested in conducting research under.”
After consulting with Hercules, Onifer created a list of four people including Dr. John McLean, associate professor of chemistry at Vanderbilt. A few days later, she received an email stating that McLean saw her resume and wanted her aboard his team.
Just two months later, in the summer of 2013, Onifer began conducting significant research for the Systems Biology, Biological Physics and Biomedical Engineering Undergraduate Research Experience (SyBBURE) program within the Vanderbilt Institute for Integrative Biosystems Research and Education (VIIBRE) as well as analytical chemistry research under the McLean Research Group.
"My relationship with Jesus holds utmost precedence in my life; I firmly believe that God ordered my steps that day at PITTCON when I met two wonderful people from Vanderbilt,” Onifer said. “At that time, I had several health problems and could have withdrawn from the semester at Waynesburg. God had a greater plan in mind. He made a way for me to come to Vanderbilt and since day one in Nashville, indescribable favor has saturated me and Proverbs 22:29 has come to pass."
Her research, entitled, “The Structural Characterization of Polyurethane Precursors: Methylenedianiline Trimer and Tetramers,” analyzed polyurethane precursors using matrix assisted laser desorption/ionization ion mobility mass spectrometry (MALDI-IM MS) at Vanderbilt University.
According to Onifer, the significance of the research lies in utilizing ion mobility to identify underlying conformational isomers that could be present in the trimer and tetramer methylenedianiline (MDA) sample. MDA is a precursor to polyurethane - a versatile substance used in the creation of medical devices and consumer products.
“Each day that I interned was a blessing because I was mentored by one of the top researchers in the country,” Onifer said. “I am growing and being molded into a real researcher, one that can take the gift of knowledge and run with it.”
She collected, tested and presented upon the data collected at Vanderbilt and communicated with other interns about the research. She also presented at the Vanderbilt institution of chemical biology.
Onifer invested hundreds of hours into her research that summer, often working late into the evenings and arriving at the lab before the 39 other SyBBURE program interns. Each day, she recited the football legend Jerry Rice’s famous quote, “Today I will do what others won't, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can't,” to focus herself.
“The most challenging part was the amount of new material I had to learn to fully grasp the fine intricate details regarding my project,” Onifer said.
Despite the challenges, Onifer eagerly dove into her research, refusing to quit, quite literally. She asked her internship supervisor, or principal investigator (PI), if she could stay an additional two weeks to extend the standard 10-week program.
He obliged with an even better offer, asking Onifer if she would apply for graduate school at Vanderbilt and stay long-term. Onifer received her official acceptance into Vanderbilt’s Doctoral Chemistry Program last fall, but is still investigating her many graduate school options.
Dr. John Williams, assistant professor of chemistry at Waynesburg University and Onifer’s academic adviser, is sure that Onifer will do well no matter where she ends up in life.
“She is very energetic and enthusiastic about her studies,” Williams said. “She never shies away from challenges, and she genuinely learns from her mistakes. There is a wide-open future for her no matter what she wants to do.”
Aside from the technical and scientific knowledge Onifer has gained from professors like Williams, she said that one of the greatest lessons learned at Waynesburg University is “upending the pyramid.” The concept challenges students to place others first in order to become a leader.
“I found that at Vanderbilt, being a leader takes on many forms: being a friend, a role model, a hard worker, an honest researcher and a strong academic,” Onifer said. “But mostly, leadership is about putting others before oneself. Influential leaders at Waynesburg taught me how to integrate faith, serving and leading in a Godly way.”