College of Science students win Beckman Scholarships for collaborative research projects
Students Camille Bridgewater, Sera Choi, and Nikki Keith are recognized.
Three Virginia Tech College of Science students have been awarded scholarships from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, which honors students studying and doing research in the fields of chemistry, biochemistry, and biological sciences.
This year’s cohort, all second-year students, are Camille Bridgewater, double majoring in chemistry and physics; Sera Choi, a biological sciences major; and Nikki Keith, double majoring in biological sciences and clinical neuroscience in the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience.
Amanda Morris, director of Virginia Tech’s Beckman Scholars Program, said of the scholarships, “The Beckman Scholar awards provide undergraduate students the opportunity to explore undergraduate research in the deepest and fullest sense. It provides research funding for supplies, travel money for national conference attendance, and a stipend so that students have the financial freedom from adding on an additional job.”
Students receive an $18,200 stipend: $6,800 each for the first and second summers and $4,600 for the academic year. Additionally, students receive $4,800 in supply and travels funds. Faculty mentors each get a $5,000 stipend.
Each student will collaborate across multiple disciplines, including the Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, and biomedical engineering and mechanics departments as well as the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. “Through these collaborative interactions, we are preparing our students for the interdisciplinary world that awaits them beyond the doors of Virginia Tech,” said Morris, a professor and associate chair in the Department of Chemistry as well as a Patricia Caldwell Faculty Fellow in the College of Science.
In partnership with the Virginia Tech Fralin Life Sciences Institute, the Beckman program is a 15-month mentored research experience for exceptional undergraduate students. Through unique programming in communication, leadership, the process of grant-writing, and diversity and inclusion awareness, it seeks to cultivate the next generation of scientific leaders, according to the nonprofit’s website. The foundation was established in September 1977 by Dr. Arnold O. and Mrs. Mabel Beckman.
Bridgewater said she has been interested in science since elementary school.
“I was doing experiments before I knew what science was. Playing outside was always a favorite pastime of mine,” she wrote in her submission packet. “Climbing trees and watching ants especially. Science has always been a big contributor to my personality. I even won my first science fair in first grade by growing rock candy. I lived in the library. I checked out books about rocks, stars, planets, the ocean — you name it, I probably read a book about it.”
Bridgewater said she wants to focus on sustainability. “I love problem-solving and figuring how things work, and many industries are not as environmentally friendly as they could be. I eventually want to help develop alternative energy sources and make chemistry more green overall,” she said.
Bridgewater’s goal post-graduation is to purse a Ph.D. As part of her Beckman scholarship, she will be working with Morris of the Department of Chemistry and Sanket Deshmukh, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, on a research project that focuses on the design of metal organic frameworks.
Choi said her interest science really got started when she first learned about stem cells and their potential to become any cell in the body. “Starting then, I think I’ve just become very passionate about the possibilities of cell-based research,” she said.
She’s putting that passion to work on her research project. She will help build tissue scaffolding to try and encourage cellular growth, a research project headed by Christopher Williams, the L.S. Randolph Professor in mechanical engineering, and Abby Whittington, an associate professor of both chemical engineering and materials science and engineering.
“The ability to not only work with incredible mentors and doctors from the Carilion Clinic, but also the ability to be able to access equipment like a professional 3D printer and other novel material systems to work on the potential of biomimicking polymers to be used in surgeries is one of the reasons the Beckman Scholars program is so special and I feel is necessary for me to further my goals,” Choi wrote in her submission packet.
Keith’s fascination with science also started at any early age. “The very first memory I have of going to a hospital is when I had a tonsillectomy in elementary school,” Keith wrote in her nomination packet. “I noticed everything going on around me — the numerous alarms buzzing, the swift movement of people intertwining in hallways, neat technologies all throughout the building. It looked like organized chaos in every direction, and I was completely fascinated by it.”
In addition to classes and research, Keith has worked at a hospital as a nursing assistant. Her career goal is to develop economical and efficient therapeutics for medical conditions. “Working one-on-one with sick patients has made me realize that it’s disheartening how debilitating some of these medical conditions are, yet some of the most effective treatments are financially draining to patients,” she said.
She will work on a cancer research project with Eli Vlaisavljevich, a professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics, and Irving Allen, an associate professor of biomedical sciences and pathobiology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.