Carnegie Mellon University
August 09, 2023

Summer Research Program Activates Chemistry Passion

By Kirsten Heuring

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
  • 412-268-9982

Clara Dou, a rising senior studying chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, started working in Associate Professor of Chemistry Stefanie Sydlik's lab during the fall of 2022. She hasn't stopped since.

"I took a class with Professor Sydlik, and she'd talked a bit about her research," Dou said. "I thought it was really interesting because I'm personally interested in synthesizing chemicals to discover new drugs and increase their applications."

Sydlik and her lab are working to find compounds that can safely bind to lead found in children and remove it, neutralizing lead's effects. Children exposed to lead can have difficulties with learning, development and behavior. Current treatments can be dangerous, so they are only used in extreme situations.

Dou said that the experience of working in a lab and discovering new things is enjoyable.

"When it works, it's extremely enlightening and delightful," Dou said. "Sometimes when we get a bit stuck, we would ask, 'how should we adapt to our failures?' It's reflecting on those failures and finding better conclusions."

This summer, Sydlik, whose research career started as an undergraduate at the Mellon College of Science, welcomed seven undergraduate students from Carnegie Mellon and beyond into her lab to work on projects under the guidance of herself, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

"I was an undergraduate in Rick McCullough's group back in 2005 to 2007, and that really started it for me," Sydlik said. "It was wonderful doing research in Rick's group. It was exciting but also this very friendly, collaborative atmosphere. It made me decide I wanted to get my Ph.D. and pursue a career as a professor at an institution where research was also a big part."

Abby Civiello, a rising senior studying chemistry at the University of Rhode Island, became interested in green chemistry after seeing climate change affect her home state of Maine. She applied to the MCS Summer Scholars Program, and the experience has encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D.

"I love chemistry, but it's always been what do I do next?" Civiello said. "This summer definitely solidified my wanting to go to grad school, being in the lab full time and getting to experience what an actual researcher does. I'm definitely looking into CMU for grad school. It's such a cool place to be."

In the Sydlik lab Civiello investigated a potential plastic composite made with a carbon-based material called graphene oxide. Currently, plastic that makes its way into the environment can take hundreds of years to fully break down. By combining plastic with organic components, Civiello and other researchers are working to create a compound that breaks down faster and causes less damage to the environment.

Abby Civiello presents her research during the SSP poster sessionAbby Civiello spent the summer creating a polymer that combines plastic with organic components. She presented her work at the Summer Scholars Program poster session.

Jacob Kadir, a rising junior studying chemistry at Carnegie Mellon, started in the Sydlik lab during spring 2023. He stayed on for the summer.

"In the spring, it felt more sporadic. I would come in for a short time and do a workup of a reaction," Kadir said. "Over the summer, getting to be there 7 or 8 hours a day has really shown me what research is. I feel a lot more comfortable now coming in during the school year and knowing what I need to do."

Kadir is assisting with a project to design a polymer bone cement that contains antibiotics. Bacteria often stick to current bone cements, which can cause infections. Members of the Sydlik lab are working to develop a bone cement that slowly releases antibiotics, preventing long-term infection. The cement needs enough antibiotics to cause a reaction in bacteria but not so much that the antibiotics weaken the cement.

Kadir and other researchers found that polymerizing the antibiotic is more effective against bacteria than current options.

"The most interesting part is how we took an antibiotic and had it participate in the polymer," Kadir said. "It doesn't give up those tensile properties of bone cement, but it can also slowly release over time and prevent infections."

Sydlik said that she was proud of all her summer students and added that summer research has provided them with valuable skills.

"The most important thing to learn is independence," Sydlik said. "When you're doing your research full time during the summer, you can be trained and pick up the nuances of your project and the techniques so much more quickly than if you're just coming in a few afternoons a week. Beyond that technical independence in the lab, the independence of thought is a really important thing that you learn from research. And this is one of my favorite parts of working with college students."

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