Four students chosen as Beckman Scholars

UNL's Beckman Scholars are (from left) Ashley Thelen, Valerie Eckrich, Qianli Wang and Jessica Chekal. (Craig Chandler/University Communications)
UNL's Beckman Scholars are (from left) Ashley Thelen, Valerie Eckrich, Qianli Wang and Jessica Chekal. (Craig Chandler/University Communications)

Four UNL students have been chosen to complete undergraduate research fellowships through the Beckman Scholars Program.

Ashley Thelen of Mitchell, S.D., Valerie Eckrich of Lincoln, and Jessica Chekal and Qianli Wang of Omaha are UNL's Beckman Scholars for the 2013-14 academic year. The award provides scholarship funds to each student to conduct research under the direction of a UNL faculty mentor. The mentors are Paul Blum, Bessey Professor of Biological Sciences; Concetta DiRusso, professor of biochemistry; Luwen Zhang, associate professor of biological sciences; and Melanie Simpson, associate professor of biochemistry.

Thelen, a junior, majors in biochemistry and microbiology with a minor in chemistry in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. Thelen began researching with Simpson and Joe Barycki, associate professor of biochemistry, her freshman year. Her research focuses on the enzyme UDP-glucose dehydrogenase, or UGDH, which is essential in heart valve formation and steroid detoxification pathways. Under Simpson and Barycki's guidance, Thelen examins the effects of altered UGDH activity, specifically, the role of UGDH in the process of tumor metastasis in prostate cancer.

"I am incredibly grateful for the research opportunities I have received as an undergraduate at UNL," Thelen said. "Being selected as a Beckman Scholar will influence my future by providing opportunities and resources that will help build a strong foundation for my career in science."

Eckrich is a junior biochemistry major in the College of Arts and Sciences. She has been working on two research projects in Blum's laboratory focusing on applications of Metallosphaera sedula, an important bio-mining organism. The first piece focuses on getting M. sedula to oxidize uranium so that it can be mined without ruining the environment. The second project focuses on acidic properties of M. sedula that can be manipulated.

Eckrich said being selected as a Beckman Scholar is a great honor and will open up more opportunities for her, including pursuing graduate school at a Research-1 level institution and explore airborne pathogens, tuberculosis, Bacillus anthraci or sarcoma cancers.

Chekal is a sophomore biochemistry major in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources who has been researching with DiRusso how different fatty acid concentrations in the diet influence lipotoxic disease.

"Obesity is a major problem in our society today because it can lead to other health issues such as cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes," Chekal said. "This will allow me to play an investigative role in a field about which I am passionate."

Wang, who was born in Tangshan, China, is a junior biological sciences major in the College of Arts and Sciences. Wang works with Zhang in the Nebraska Center for Virology, studying the Epstein-Barr virus. EBV is commonly known as the cause of mononucleosis, but it has also been shown to be associated with multiple lymphomas and carcinomas. Wang's research will explore the relationships among the host's DNA damage response system and if EBV-infected cells' responses to DNA damage may potentially induce cancer formation.

Wang said being selected as a Beckman Scholar will allow him to conclude his research and continue his studies in graduate school.

The students are UNL's first group of Beckman Scholars. In March, UNL was one of 10 institutions in the United States selected for the Beckman Scholars program by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. The award, worth $115,800, will allow the university to provide scholarships for three years. Each year, a group of three to five UNL students will be selected for the program. The university is matching the funds to help support the scholars.

The students will conduct research full-time during the summer and part-time as coursework allows during the academic year. The goal for each student after finishing the program is to have his or her work published in a peer-reviewed journal. The scholars also travel each summer to three-day Beckman Symposium in Irvine, Calif., where they meet Beckman Scholars from all over the country and share research results.

The UNL program is administered by Gregory Snow, Paul Black, John Osterman, Mark Griep, Laura Damuth and Patrice Berger. Other institutions in the program are St. Olaf College, Tufts University, the University of Florida, the University of Michigan, the University of Richmond, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Virginia, Wellesley College and Rice University.

— Deann Gayman, University Communications