Thanks to a generous grant from the DeFeo Family Foundation, five outstanding Northwestern undergraduate students were selected to be the first recipients of the DeFeo Family Undergraduate Research Fellowship Award. The two-year Fellowship provides funding for students to study synthetic biology in Center for Synthetic Biology (CSB) faculty laboratories, learn new research skills, and explore career opportunities in the field.

“We met with Eric DeFeo several times to iterate through ideas and the final result was a true team effort, informed by faculty, staff, and an alum who had been in the undergraduates’ shoes not so long ago himself,” says Danielle Tullman-Ercek, co-director of CSB. “Our discussions took off from there!”

After studying in the lab of Joshua Leonard and graduating from Northwestern with a BS in Chemical and Biological Engineering, DeFeo was eager to make a difference.

“My experience in the Leonard lab sparked a passion for the field,” says DeFeo’11. “By providing an immersive, structured, and longer-term research experience, the Fellowship will expose Northwestern undergraduates to the vast applications and opportunities in synthetic biology—from design-driven medicine to new technologies that protect the environment. The ability to have this experience early in their undergraduate studies is unique to Northwestern’s CSB and provides support at a critical time of career planning and development.”

Following are this year’s DeFeo Family Undergraduate Research Fellowship Award recipients:

Natalia Barna
Area of study: Optimization of the secretion of Mfp5 (mussel foot protein 5), a biomedically relevant protein, using salmonella’s type III secretion system.
Faculty Mentor: Danielle Tullman-Ercek
Major: Chemical Engineering
Minor: Biochemical Engineering and Biotechnology
Standing: Rising Sophomore
Hometown: Des Plaines, IL

Margaret Guilarte-Silva
Area of study: Computational biology and enzymology
Faculty Mentor: Linda Broadbelt
Major: Chemical Engineering
Minor: Data Science & Engineering
Standing: Rising Junior
Hometown: Alexandria, VA

Caleb Nunes
Area of study: Researching the mechanism by which atherosclerotic inflammation is reduced using the antibody construct
Faculty Mentor: Lisa Volpatti
Major: Chemical Engineering
Minor: Economics (Undeclared)
Standing: Rising Junior
Hometown: Chattanooga, TN

Rohan Sohini
Area of study: Transcriptional adaptation in single cells
Faculty Mentor: Yogesh Goyal
Major: Applied Mathematics
Minor: Data Science and Chemistry
Standing: Rising Junior
Hometown: Lufkin, TX

Maggie Schneider
Area of study: Mineral catalysis and cellular uptake of transformed materials
Faculty Mentor: Ludmilla Aristilde
Major: Biological Sciences and English Literature
Minor: Chemistry
Standing: Rising Junior
Hometown: New York City, NY

Awardees begin their research experience alongside undergraduates in CSB’s National Science Foundation-funded Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates and their projects will continue for the next two years. The student stipend will cover full-time summer research, materials and supplies and other activities, such as teatime with faculty, workshops and field trips to local synthetic biology companies.  Students are also invited to participate in annual retreat, ethics conversations, workshops, and Research in Progress (RIP) meetings.

“Providing this kind of opportunity to undergrads is one of the things that makes CSB, and Northwestern in general, one of the greatest places to train and prepare for a meaningful and impactful career,” says Erica Hartmann (Civil & Environmental Engineering) and faculty cohort lead for the program.

In addition to bolstering students’ ability to select problems to research, conduct experiments, analyze data, and communicate their findings, the Fellowship aims to build confidence and spark interest in synthetic biology’s many career directions from joining a biotech startup or working in the pharmaceutical industry to pursuing a position in intellectual property or consulting.

“Undergraduate research is an extremely valuable experience. Joining a lab my freshman year is what put me on the path to where I am now,” says Hartmann. “For the students, it could be that they will fall in love with academic research and never leave. But even if they take another path that doesn’t involve research, it will be an opportunity to learn and build community which is so central to the Northwestern experience.”

Feature image caption (left to right): This year’s DeFeo Family Undergraduate Research Fellowship Awardees Maggie Schneider, Margaret Guilarte-Silva, Caleb Nunes, Natalia Barna and Rohan Sohini.

by Lisa La Vallee