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Two Waynesburg University students traveled this summer from their hometowns in Western Pennsylvania to intern at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Both had the opportunity to serve as undergraduate researchers in graduate student laboratories, though in different areas.

Junior Emily Ankrom, a biology major at Waynesburg, worked in the R.B. Wetherill Laboratory of Chemistry, which focuses on DNA nanotechnology.

Ankrom, with the help of a graduate student mentor, spent the summer researching how to visualize DNA liquid crystals. While Ankrom’s classes at Waynesburg significantly helped her understand scientific research concepts, she had little experience with DNA nanotechnology, which she said was one of the biggest difficulties of the internship.

“It was challenging right off the bat to enter into a research lab that focused on subject material almost completely foreign to me,” said Ankrom. “I had to spend quite a lot of time on my own, researching background information and reading scientific papers to understand what I would be doing.”

Thankfully, Ankrom had graduate students in the lab with her to mentor and guide her work. She loved being able to see firsthand how much Purdue’s graduate students and professors love what they do.

Ankrom is a member of the American Chemical Society and the Biology Club at Waynesburg. Other students in those organizations showed her how valuable an undergraduate research position could be and helped her apply. Now that she has research experience under her belt, Ankrom has solidified her aspirations to go to graduate school after Waynesburg.

“Before this research internship, I had no clue what grad school was like,” said Ankrom. “Being able to peer into the landscape of graduate school research has helped me visualize the journey I will be embarking on.”

Sophomore Lauren Petrina also secured a position as an undergraduate researcher at Purdue, but she was placed in a different lab than Ankrom. An engineering-chemistry major, Petrina worked in Professor Hilkka Kenttamaa’s lab, specializing in understanding crude oil.

Petrina entered into her research internship at Purdue just after her freshman year at Waynesburg, an unusual circumstance. Waynesburg professors in charge of the American Chemical Society, of which Petrina is a member, encouraged her to apply, though they warned her that freshmen usually don’t get accepted.

But a few months later, Petrina was in a lab with graduate students, getting more hands-on experience than she ever expected.

“I thought I was just going to be an assistant to the graduate students – that is not the case at all,” said Petrina. “I was able to ask questions, contribute my thoughts and feedback and even make suggestions.”

Petrina’s research included analyzing heavy crude oil to understand whether it can be converted to light crude oil, which is used in cars. Supplies of light crude oil have been depleted, so petroleum companies work with labs like Petrina’s to discover whether heavy crude oil is useful. Petrina said she would not have been able to complete her work without having taken Waynesburg’s organic and inorganic chemistry classes.

Like Ankrom, Petrina said the passion of the graduate students in her lab was evident, and she is grateful for the opportunity to work with them.

“If I decide to go to graduate school, I will already be ahead of the game because I will have had experience in a graduate laboratory,” said Petrina. “All of the knowledge I gained through this internship will be useful for the rest of my life.”

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Kristen-Wilson.jpgPreparing for a successful future is a major priority for senior chemistry (secondary education) major Kristen Wilson. This summer, she is devoting her time to chemistry education research, which she knows will ultimately benefit her decision to become a high school chemistry teacher. 

Wilson is spending 10 weeks as an undergraduate researcher in chemistry education at North Dakota State University (NDSU) in Fargo, North Dakota. She is conducting research on data collected by Dr. James Nyachwaya, assistant professor of chemistry education at NDSU and Wilson’s advisor.

In addition to conducting research and analyzing data, Wilson will be attending seminars on education based research and professional development. At the completion of her internship, Wilson will present her final research at a poster session, which she will bring back to Waynesburg.

“The poster will come back to Waynesburg, and if it is exceptional research, I can get additional funding to present the research at national conferences,” said Wilson.

Aside from Wilson’s work, she is taking advantage of networking opportunities with the NDSU faculty. These relationships may have the ability to provide her future career opportunities upon graduating from Waynesburg.

“Opportunities that internships and research open include strengthening research abilities, but this experience is showing me a field of research that I may have never seen,” said Wilson. “It is a very unique type of research that I will be bringing back to Waynesburg when I return in the fall.”

Wilson credits her participation in various Waynesburg activities for helping her have a stronger ability to work closely with others. She is a member of the Commuter Club, Relay for Life and the American Chemical Society (ACS). Wilson has also been inducted into the education honorary society, Kappa Delta Pi, and the chemistry honorary society, Gamma Sigma Epsilon.

“All of these involvements at Waynesburg have helped me become more comfortable with working with others and being a leader,” said Wilson. “They have provided me an opportunity to work closely with other professors and students, which has helped in this internship.”

In particular, Waynesburg’s ACS student chapter has been a great benefit to Wilson’s education. Being involved in the student chapter has introduced her to a lot of chemistry education research.

“Had I not been involved in ACS, I may not have taken an interest or even known this field existed, which, in turn, would not have made me search for opportunities like this one,” said Wilson.

Wilson will serve as the president of the University’s student chapter during the upcoming academic year.

Most of all, Wilson’s chemistry classes at Waynesburg have best prepared her for the work she is doing at NDSU.

“The chemistry classes at Waynesburg have helped me develop the skills needed to find, read and analyze research articles,” said Wilson. “The dedication to research and development of a research project that I had done at Waynesburg helped to prepare me for the expectations that Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs, such as this one here at NDSU, expect.”

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Onifer_Tiffany_4.jpgTiffany 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.”



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