The University of San Diego’s commitment to undergraduate research has been rewarded with a significant funding award from a prestigious California-based foundation and, as a result, five USD students will reap the benefits of a full academic year’s worth of research funding.
The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, based in Irvine, Calif., informed USD in late February that it would provide $130,000 to fund five Beckman Scholar Awards made payable over a three-year term. The university, one of 35 finalists, was “strongly recommended” by a 12-member board of distinguished professors to the foundation’s board of directors.
Each student recipient, beginning with two this summer, will receive $26,000 in funding — $21,000 directly which is broken into segments for the first and second summer as well as the fall and spring semester. An additional $5,000 is earmarked for the scholar’s designated mentor, but it is restricted to costs that will benefit the scholar’s travel, supplies needs and costs associated with being published in undergraduate journals.
News of this award is exciting for USD’s dedication to undergraduate research and, immediately, for Bette Webster (pictured top left), a junior biochemistry major, and Stephanie Gorczyca (pictured below right), a sophomore biophysics major. They are the first two students chosen for the Beckman Scholars Award that’s open to USD students with a 3.5 grade-point average or above and are majoring in chemistry, biochemistry, biology, physics or biophysics. Another important aspect is the selection of a faculty mentor. Both students will work with a top female professor in their respective field at USD.
Webster, currently wrapping up a semester of study abroad in New Zealand, will spend her Beckman-funded time working alongside Lauren Benz, PhD, a Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor in Chemistry and a 2013 recipient of a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award.
Webster’s research is tied to the concept of solid-state gas storage, which allows a large amount of gas to be stored in a small volume. These gases can be used as alternative fuel sources and/or converted into other molecules. According to her application, Bette will specifically be “studying the potential for a surface called ZIF-8, a porous structure, to be used for such gas storage and molecular conversions.”
Gorczyca will work with Rae Anderson, PhD, an assistant professor of physics, which isn’t something new as the former has worked in Anderson’s lab since summer 2013. Anderson’s impressive credentials include an NSF CAREER Award, a Research Corporation Cottrell College Science Award and a grant recipient of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research’s Young Investigator Research program.
The ultimate goal of Gorczyca’s research, she said, “is to characterize DNA diffusion and conformation in crowded environments and determine their dependence on DNA length and topology, as well as crowding agent size, concentration and chemical structure.”
While both students will be immersed in their respective research projects, one of the best aspects of the Beckman award is that it allows the student to work on their research 10 hours a week during the academic year. That’s in addition to the funding the covers this summer and next summer.
“It’s exciting that we now have something during the academic year to support students. It’s so, so important,” said Sonia Zarate, director of USD’s Office of Undergraduate Research. “Although our students really get embedded in their research over the summer, sometimes you have other things to do like work during the academic year to make ends meet. Now, these students don’t have to do it. This allows them to really focus on their research, which in turn helps them with academics and with their long-term plans.”
Zarate added that Beckman funding can also cover costs associated with preparations to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). That will be helpful to Gorczyca, who said she’s interested in attending medical school or getting a PhD. Her passion for the research, is evident.
“The biomedical applications of physics are fascinating to me,” Gorczyca said. “My involvement with this research has helped solidify my love for it.”
Undergraduate research opportunities, such as those afforded Webster, Gorczyca and available to all USD students, demonstrate the strength of a USD education. Students get a hands-on experience, work closely with talented and caring faculty and it opens up more possibilities to succeed. Obtaining funding from the Beckman Foundation is a clear path to that end.
“We see this as a bit of an arrival for USD,” said Debbie Tahmassebi, special assistant to USD Provost Andy Allen and a veteran chemistry professor and administrator, about the Beckman Foundation recognition. “They look at what kind of funding you get from particular sources, so they evaluated our institution based on the success of our prior scholarship with undergraduate research. You’ve got to have top mentors; those who’ve received considerable funding, have been published and have established strong undergraduate research programs. Now that we’ve had a few NSF CAREER Award winners, and because other funding institutions are mentioning us, I feel that’s what made us eligible for consideration. I think it speaks to the overall success of our undergraduate research program in the areas Beckman funds and that’s nice.”
— Ryan T. Blystone