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Undergraduates participate in cutting edge research

Professor and student in a research lab
Undergraduate students are encouraged to participate in faculty-led research at UNF. They often are given research opportunities that other universities would make available only to graduate students. Here are two alumni who shared with us what out-of-classroom research experience early in their education meant to them.

The power of a choice
Angela Zwarycz, ’18, a chemistry alumna, knew long before she started at UNF that she wanted to enter a pharmacy program after graduation.

What she didn’t know was that her choice to do research — rather than picking an elective course — would lead her to work with Dr. Kenneth Laali, presidential professor of chemistry, and give her the opportunity to help develop compounds with promising anti-cancer properties. Nor did she imagine that she would receive a research grant, win a poster award and become a published author in scientific journals.

“The experience I received working with Dr. Laali was extremely valuable as I was able to really hone in on the technical side of chemistry,” said Zwarycz, explaining that she worked on the development of curcuminoid-derived compounds for anti-cancer research. “It’s one thing to know all the information written in a chemistry textbook, but to actually execute many of the techniques a chemist needs in a lab to be successful is another story.”

Zwarycz is co-author on three publications and on one that is currently under review by a high-impact chemistry journal. She will enter the pharmacy graduate program at the University of Florida this fall. She believes her research experience not only helped her get into the program, but provided learning that she’s certain to use in a pharmacy setting.

In a quest for cancer drug discovery, Laali, an organic chemist, and his team of researchers have synthesized 100-plus new chemical compounds in the past four years. “We have discovered a number of ‘hit’ compounds that by in-vitro bioassay on human cancer cell lines exhibit notable anti-tumor activity, by not only stopping cancer cells from growing but also killing them,” Laali said. His work has attracted the interest of the Mayo Clinic scientists working on leukemia and scientists at the Medical School of University of Alabama-Birmingham working on colorectal cancer, who have performed the bioassay on compounds synthesized in the Laali laboratory, and who became co-authors on his recent publication. Laali has filed a provisional patent and is in the process of securing regular patents.

In looking back, Zwarycz is aware that she had a research opportunity as an undergraduate that many graduate students would be thrilled to get. “The positive results that we were getting with a few of the curcuminoids really make me believe that Dr. Laali is going in a very good direction in finding anti-cancer drugs,” she said. “And having participated in that was incredible!

“I’m really glad that I made the choice I did.”

The power of a question
Dr. Brian Wingender, ’13, remembers walking up to his professor, Dr. Paul Eason, after class and asking if he could assist Eason with his research. That was eight years ago when Wingender was an undergrad in engineering.

He now has come full circle. After earning a doctorate in materials science at the University of Florida, Wingender has returned to UNF as a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer. These days, he’s the person students walk up to after class and ask about research opportunities.

“Being an undergrad at a small school was beneficial for me because I was able to have closer relationships with my professors than if I had attended a large school, which I believe opened research avenues for me that otherwise might not have been accessible,” Wingender said.

As an undergrad, Wingender said that he assisted Eason by preparing metals and composite materials for analysis, which involved cutting, polishing, orienting and documenting. The lab was small and the actual analysis had to be done in Gainesville at a UF lab.

Since then, UNF has grown and its landscape has changed significantly. Instead of a small lab, professors and students now work in UNF’s Materials Science and Engineering Research Facility. MSERF is a multi-user electron microscopy and materials characterization center that enables cutting-edge research to be conducted at UNF. (see inset)

Eason, now the director of MSERF, was instrumental in making the lab a reality at UNF. It was a project that was six years in the making, Eason said. He worked with UNF’s governmental affairs staff to write a legislative budget request that was successfully funded to support the operation of MSERF and to create a new manufacturing engineering degree at UNF.

“The state recognizes our commitment to expanding research,” Eason said. “This project is important because the lab puts resources in front of our professors and students in a way it’s never been done before. Instead of traveling to another university, we now have professors working in-house, side-by-side with students.”

Looking ahead, Eason expects the cutting-edge research to provide the perfect launching ground for future student success. “If Brian was a success story doing research before MSERF, the hope is that this new facility will cultivate more successes and students who stay for graduate school or return to teach,” Eason said.

Thomas Fowler, a junior mechanical engineering major and Navy veteran, could be one of those students. He will begin research this summer with Wingender. “It’s a great opportunity, and I’m pleased to be working on this type of project,” said Fowler, explaining that he will be performing electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction that will help determine the effectiveness of the process they are developing.

The team will be working to offset emissions created during cement production. Wingender explained that because of the amount of cement produced worldwide, it has become the largest carbon dioxide emitter of any manufactured product.

“The research project aims to develop the capacity at UNF to synthesize carbon negative cement in a two-phase reactor, with the ultimate goal of providing a sustainable path toward combating global climate change,” Wingender said. “And UNF will be the only university in the world researching this cement.” The funding for the project was awarded to principal investigators Dr. Craig Hargis, assistant professor in construction management, and Eason.

For Wingender, his work with students in the lab now affords him a view from the other side. He knows firsthand that students will benefit from the chance to do undergraduate research and have professors who will also serve as mentors. After all, he knows what it did for him.

“Being able to work with Paul Eason, getting that hands-on experience as an undergrad, really prepared me for what I needed to do to make the jump as a graduate student,” he said.

And all he had to do was ask.

Materials Science & Engineering Research Facility
MSERF is a multi-user facility that supports education and research efforts across all materials science and engineering related disciplines. With the most advanced tools and methods for materials research, MSERF is used to develop education programs at the undergraduate, graduate and continuing education levels to support advanced manufacturing and materials innovation needs of the region and beyond. It also serves as a resource to the private sector through analytical services in materials and manufacturing research, development, process control and quality assurance.

MSERF was funded by the state legislature through the Advanced Manufacturing and Materials Innovation initiative and created in strategic partnership with Tescan, one of the world’s leading electron microscope manufacturers; Oxford Instruments, supplier of advanced X-ray and electron analytical equipment; and Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, a provider of a broad range of analytical and physical testing instruments.