Chemistry Major Rebecca Alford Named Hertz Foundation Fellow
By Jocelyn Duffy
Carnegie Mellon University senior chemistry major Rebecca Alford is one of 12 college seniors and first-year graduate students nationwide to be named a 2016 Hertz Fellow by the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation. The fellows, who were selected from more than 800 applicants, will receive a stipend and full tuition support valued at $250,000 for up to five years of graduate study to pursue doctoral degrees in the sciences, engineering and mathematics.
Alford, from Commack, N.Y., will pursue her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University in chemical and biomolecular engineering. Her ultimate goal is to become a professor and lead her own research group that will build computational tools to explore the connection between genetic sequence, protein structure and function, and disease.
Alford’s interest in science was sparked early. As a child, she was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition that results in visual impairment. Over time, she discovered that her condition was a bit of a medical mystery and there was little scientific research on the topic. She also discovered something else: “I realized that I did not need to wait for other scientists to find the answers. I could find them myself,” Alford said.
When she was a junior in high school, Alford joined Richard Bonneau’s lab at New York University, where she focused her research efforts on figuring out how genetic mutations affect protein structure and function. She created a computational method to classify mutations as disruptive or non-disruptive to the function of membrane proteins, which are critical in many cellular processes and are implicated in a large number of diseases. The methods Alford developed can be applied to thousands of mutations important for interpreting how genetic diversity contributes to disease.
After her first year at Carnegie Mellon, Alford began working as an undergraduate research assistant in Jeffrey Gray’s lab at Johns Hopkins University. There she helped to develop a new computational method for modeling membrane proteins. This method, called RosettaMP, allows scientists to model and design membrane protein structures and lives within the Rosetta biomolecular modeling software, which is collaboratively developed by 40+ labs worldwide. Alford designed the infrastructure for modeling within the cell’s lipid bilayer as well as proof-of-concept applications for demonstrating the scientific potential of the method. She continues to investigate ways to accurately model membrane proteins in the lipid bilayer.
“I love studying protein structure and function because it is the ultimate puzzle. When you find all the pieces, you get a detailed blueprint for the how the cell works, what happens when things go awry, and hopefully how to fix it,” Alford said. “The Hertz Fellowship will provide me with the creative freedom to do fundamental research in the field, bring my ideas to life, and work toward doing science that will hopefully impact the public.”
“Rebecca has high expectations of herself and in my experience most often not only meets but exceeds them. She is an outstanding student with an amazing work ethic who sees life for the opportunities it offers rather than the barriers it presents,” said Alford’s adviser Karen Stump, teaching professor of chemistry.
In 2013, Alford spoke at TEDxCMU about how she transformed her disability into inspiration for scientific research. She also spoke on a panel about her experiences at a STEM Expo for Pennsylvania middle and high school students with visual impairments.
Alford is an active mentor for young women interested in STEM fields. She mentors high school students and volunteers at Creative Technology Nights (Tech Nights), a weekly program that exposes Pittsburgh-area middle school girls to STEM topics. With her CMU peers, she co-developed and pilot-tested ThinkTech, a new curriculum to teach middle school girls computational thinking skills. Alford served as a co-instructor at two weeklong workshops on collaborative Rosetta software development, and she worked with her research mentor, Gray, to organize the first NSF-funded Rosetta Summer Internship program.
In addition to being named a Hertz Fellow, Alford also received a 2016 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, a Carnegie Mellon Women's Association Award, and the Mellon College of Science's Dr. J. Paul Fugassi and Linda E. Monteverde Award.
The Hertz Foundation was created by entrepreneur John Hertz, founder of Hertz Rental Car, to inspire and invest in the future of scientific exploration by providing resources and academic freedom to young minds. It is the only foundation that provides Ph.D. tuition and stipend support for five years while offering its fellows full research freedom.