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Three Miami Students Selected as Beckman Scholars

07/28/2008

Miami University students Nidhi Subbaraman and Katherine Bender, both senior biochemistry majors, and Lauren Spadafora, a junior microbiology and biochemistry major, have been selected as 2008-2009 Beckman Scholars. The scholarship program established by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation recognizes outstanding undergraduate students in chemistry and biological sciences research at select universities throughout the United States.

Supported by $19,300 scholarships, Subbaraman, Bender and Spadafora will conduct research with their faculty mentors this summer and next and through the intervening academic year.

Subbaraman is working in the laboratory of faculty mentor Gary Lorigan, professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Her Beckman project involves investigating the structural and dynamic properties of integral membrane proteins using spin-label electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectroscopy.

Specifically, she is studying the acetylcholine receptor protein, which involves “situating it in a lipid bilayer and obtaining information about it by EPR spectroscopy,” she explains.
Subbaraman has been working with Lorigan since her first year at Miami. “I was aware that research was an option and I was curious,” she says. “I talked to professors and visited their labs, and decided on this one!”

Her research has contributed to papers already, says Lorigan, who describes Subbaraman as “a very talented and hard working undergraduate researcher…she has fabulous lab skills.” She is a Benjamin Harrison Scholar and has been involved with Miami’s scholar leader program. She is also a member of Miami’s Collegiate Chorale and Global Rhythms.

Beckman Scholars are required to work on their research projects for two consecutive summers. The scholars are grateful for the requirement: “summer is very important, you can research all the time and school doesn’t get in the way,” explains Subbaraman. “You can focus on the project and structure your time how you like; it lets you know if research is something you really want to do.”

Bender, from Lima, and Spadafora, from Vienna, are working in the laboratory of faculty mentor Michael Crowder, Volwiler Research Professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

Bender’s project involves spectroscopic studies on the Bla2 enzyme from Bacillus anthracis. The enzyme causes antibiotic resistance in the bacterium that causes anthrax. “I hope to learn about the structure of this enzyme and the mechanism by which it acts so that eventually an inhibitor can be designed to fight resistant bacterial infection,” she explains.

A Benjamin Harrison Scholar, Bender has been working with Crowder since her sophomore year. “I always wanted to try research... I interviewed with a lot of professors to see what their research was about and I picked the one that I thought would be the best fit for me. I ended up staying over the summer and working in the lab and that really got me involved.”

Among other activities, Bender is co-chair of Miami Med, a premedical honorary club.
Spadafora is examining zinc (Zn(II)) binding proteins on the E. coli chromosome. Zn(II) is an essential trace element of many proteins and is required for life in all organisms. While high levels of Zn(II) are toxic to cells, Crowder and his colleagues have found that too little Zn(II) is bacteriostatic — meaning that bacterial cells cannot grow without it. Spadafora’s project involves studying how is Zn(II) incorporated into and transported within the cell.

“Coming into Miami, I always knew that I wanted to do some type of research during my undergraduate years, and, after getting adjusted to college life my first semester, I started looking around,” says Spadafora. “Dr. Crowder showed me the beta-lactamase projects that they were doing, and I was instantly hooked. I'm extremely grateful for (Crowder and Jerry Sarquis professor of chemistry and biochemistry) in helping me to get started.”

Spadafora is a member of the university honors program, the honors and scholars program and is involved with Stage Left, a student run theatre group.

“Both Katie and Lauren are co-authors on publications already and both will have projects available for more papers in the future,” says Crowder, who has been mentor to four Beckman Scholars since 2003. Lorigan has been a mentor to two other Beckman Scholars since 2005.

The three Beckman Scholars, plus Christine Hajdin, Beckman Scholar 2007-2008, will attend the Annual Beckman Scholars Symposium in Irvine, Calif. in late July.

Miami is one of 13 institutions selected out of 122 invited to apply for the Beckman Scholars Program Institutional Award for 2006-2008. Miami was also recipient of a 2003-2005 Beckman Scholar Program award.

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