Students from across the country drive new immunology, sustainability research during 2022 REU program

Undergraduate students from across the country gathered at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering this summer for ten weeks of hands-on research into sustainable technology, materials science, immunoengineering, and quantum engineering.

The Undergraduate Research Experience (REU) program, funded by the National Science Foundation, provides undergraduate students attending non-research colleges and universities the opportunity to gain authentic lab experience. The program was held in person for the first time this year.

Andrew Ferguson, REU director and associate professor of molecular engineering, spoke about the 2022 cohort and their work.

“We are delighted to have such a fantastic group this year,” Ferguson said. “The students have worked on a variety of exciting projects ranging from the separation of lithium ions from seawater to high-throughput screening of novel molecules for environmental remediation to in vitro design of new T-cell therapies, and it was wonderful to see the novel research that these incredible students achieved in such a short period of time.”

Danielle Brennan, a chemical engineering major at Howard University and medical school hopeful, came to the REU with a desire to grow her research capabilities. An aspiring MD/PhD, Brennan hopes to one day contribute to both sides of the medical field—the lab and the clinic.

REU student in lab
Danielle Brennan inspecting cryopreserved samples, stored at -150˚C

“The REU program at PME was a great opportunity to bridge my chemical engineering background with the more biology-based research being done in the immunoengineering theme,” Brennan said. “I have learned so many laboratory skills in the past ten weeks: microscopy, cell culture, immunohistochemistry, and so much more. It has been an all-around lovely experience, and I’ve met so many wonderful people here, especially my supportive mentor who guided me throughout the summer.”

Brennan worked with postdoctoral researcher Alexandra Magold in the Swartz Lab on her project titled Lymphatic Endothelial Ciliation, investigated the relationship between primary cilia (hair-like protrusions on cells that sense flow) and the expression of junction proteins in lymphatics.

For Nolan Murphy-Genao, science has always been a family pursuit. Both of his parents pursued STEM careers, but the spark that lit Nolan’s scientific journey came during a five-week summer intensive, BRIDGE, where he delved into chemistry for six hours a day.

Murphy-Genao, now a rising 4th year in chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Connecticut, was drawn to the REU program for the chance to bolster his biomolecular experience.

“The REU has been excellent and has taught me a lot, not only in how to perform lab research, but also how to navigate the scientific world more broadly,” Murphy-Genao said. “The focus on career and professional skills, especially graduate school preparation and science communication, are priceless. Being able to convey the intricacies of complex science into a comprehensible narrative is difficult, but the biweekly cohort presentations taught me how to do just that.”

Murphy-Genao worked with Chuqiao (Elise) Chen in the Rowan Group to synthesize liquid crystal elastomer composites, which he formulated by immersing liquid crystal elastomers in a dynamic polymeric network to create a platform for smart materials.

From an early age, Paola Gonzalez has always wanted to make a positive impact on people’s lives. A first-generation student at Dalton State College, Gonzalez is studying biology in order to contribute to the essential science underlying so many of today’s most critical challenges—health care, climate change, and sustainability. For her, the REU program was an extension of those same efforts.

“The PME REU caught my attention because of its emphasis on engineering, an area I had wanted to explore, especially within sustainability and health,” Gonzalez said. “It’s very interdisciplinary, which I love. Molecular engineering, by its nature, combines several disciplines, so it’s the perfect field for someone with broad interests. It felt like my first real research experience and was one of the best educational experiences I’ve had.”

Gonzalez worked with María Ley Flores in the de Pablo Group, performing molecular dynamic simulations to obtain properties of an ester-linked polyethylene molecule that could be used to eliminate single-use plastics.

Laura Rico-Beck, the program’s manager and the assistant dean of education and outreach at PME, is enthusiastic about the REU’s holistic approach to education.

“In addition to research, students take part in a wide variety of professional development activities, which are essential in helping REU scholars visualize the next steps in their academic journeys,” said Rico-Beck. “Students learn about the grad school application process and explore fellowship opportunities, science communication, and resume building. They also take field trips to research facilities including Argonne National Lab, UChicago’s microscopy core facilities, and the Pritzker Nanofabrication Lab.”

Learn more about the REU program and how to apply for the 2023 cohort