Juniors Shaoni Dasgupta and Nate Matzko each have plans to pursue joint medical and doctorate degrees after graduating from Clemson University. Now, as Beckman Scholars, both students are one step closer to achieving that goal.
Clemson was selected to participate in the Beckman Scholars Program, which will provide six undergraduate students like Dasgupta and Matzko with funded, mentored laboratory research experiences. Both Dasgupta and Matzko will receive an $18,200 stipend, plus funds for research supplies and travel during the program. The Beckman Scholars Program at Clemson is housed under the Creative Inquiryprogram in the Watt Family Innovation Center. The program is funded by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.
The road to Beckman Scholars began for Dasgupta and Matzko during their sophomore year, when they both applied and were selected from a competitive pool of their peers. They started their individual research experiences in the spring of their sophomore year and will participate in the program for 15 months.
Shaoni and Nathan were selected based on their academic excellence, research accomplishments and research potential,”said program director Barbara Speziale, associate director for academic affairs at the Watt Center, director of Creative Inquiry and professor of biological sciences.
Dasgupta is a biological sciences major from Charleston. She is being mentored by Kerry Smith, director of the EPIC program and professor of genetics and biochemistry.
She is studying the role of carnitine acetyltransferases in the virulence of the fungus Cryptococcus neoformans, specifically focusing on the role of identified gene sequences in virulence.
“I thought [the Beckman Scholars Program] would be a great opportunity to advance my career in science and allow me more opportunities to learn and develop [research] experience,” she said. “[This experience] will allow me more research experience to enhance my scientific inquiry abilities that I can use in my career in the future.”
According to Smith, Dasgupta was going to be working in his research laboratory with or without the Beckman Scholars opportunity. Early in her sophomore year, she sought out opportunities to participate in research opportunities with Smith’s lab group. This project has been ongoing, but Dasgupta has made great strides in her first semester of the research program and Smith says she is a “leading force in installing a new process in the Clemson labs” when it comes to utilizing the CRISPR-Cas9 technique for her research. This fall, she should be able to target one of the genes she has isolated and move forward with her research.
Matzko, a biochemistry major from Irmo, is studying the roles of BCCIP alpha and BCCIP beta in homologous recombination; the process is a DNA repair pathway that resolves DNA double-stranded breaks. His mentor, Michael Sehorn, is an associate professor in genetics and biochemistry.
“When I first found out about the Beckman Scholars Program, I was already in the middle of applying to various summer research programs across the country,” Matzko said. “After learning more about the program, I knew I wanted to become a Beckman Scholar because I felt that it would provide me with the most opportunities to immerse myself in a scientific project and progress as a researcher.”
Like Dasgupta’s project, Matzko’s research is part of larger, ongoing research efforts at Clemson. Sehorn says that all of the preexisting research and studies have laid a solid foundation for Matzko, but his time in the Beckman Scholars Program will provide him an opportunity to reveal how his work fits in to the larger picture of DNA repair pathways research. His project aims to further characterize BCCIP alpha and BCCIP beta in order to determine the role these proteins have in the homologous recombination pathway.
Both Smith and Sehorn expressed immense pride for the work their students conducted in the research labs this summer. Undergraduate research is what Clemson does best, Smith says, and having two talented students like Dasgupta and Matzko as Clemson’s inaugural Beckman Scholars is important recognition for the University.
“Supporting exceptionally talented undergraduate students to achieve academic and research excellence is the core of the Beckman Scholars program,” Speziale said. “These students are expected to become leaders in their fields.”
Sehorn echoed these thoughts, adding that this program gives students like Dasgupta and Matzko the chance to “pave the way” for underclassmen who are also interested in research experiences.
“Clemson is unique,” Sehorn said. “Duke, Harvard and even Yale don’t provide the opportunities to do research stints that students can do here. This opportunity is going to accelerate [Nate’s] career.”
While their mentors are proud, both Beckman Scholars recipients credited their success thus far in the program to working with excellent faculty leadership like Smith and Sehorn. Matzko says Sehorn first encouraged him to apply for the program and has given him the freedom to learn how to become an independent researcher.
Smith routinely checks in with Dasgupta, providing guidance for her project while also giving the independence she needs to develop as a scientist. She says his troubleshooting and breakdown after each experiment gives her a sounding board to come up with possible solutions she can use in future research experiments.
Dasgupta, Matzko and Sehorn all traveled to California in early August to represent Clemson at the annual Beckman Symposium. Making connections with other Beckman Scholars and researchers was a big advantage, which motivated both students as they move into their second semester of the program’s four-semester timeline.
“My time at the Symposium definitely helped shape my perspective on research and the scientific community as a whole for the better,” Matzko said. “It ultimately renewed my excitement for the work I’m doing here in Clemson.”
Both students are active outside their research labs, maintaining memberships in organizations like Phi Kappa Phi, Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries, and serving as mentors in groups like the Peer Mentor Leadership Team and the Peer-Assisted Learning Leaders.