Four Chemistry graduate students awarded Doctoral Dissertation Fellowships

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (05/12/2023) – Four Chemistry graduate students have been awarded 2023-24 Doctoral Dissertation Fellowships (DDF). The awardees are Beza Tuga, Erin Plasek, Rachel Rapagnani, and Shelby Auger.

Beza Tuga is a fourth year Chemistry graduate student in the Haynes Group. Like many STEM undergraduates, Beza originally planned to pursue medicine or a healthcare-related career after graduating. But with time, her interest in chemistry was motivated by her mentors. 

“I was fortunate enough to take a class with a wonderful scientist and person, Dr. Rajesh Sunasee, who eventually ended up being my advisor and mentor. It was when I worked closely with him that I was able to learn about the impact of chemistry and that I can build a career out of my interests in research. I was introduced to my projects at UMN through my current advisor, Dr. Christy Haynes, and several others in the NSF Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, namely Dr. Jason White. With support from Christy, Jason, and Dr. Carl Rosen (Department of Soil, Water and Climate), my research aims to develop nanoparticles at the lab bench and apply them to plants in greenhouse and field studies with the overall goal of alleviating global food insecurity.” – Beza Tuga

As she wraps up her fourth year, Beza is working towards figuring out her next step beyond UMN. She is also focused on learning how to be a good mentor to her undergraduate mentee, Andrea Ligocki. Beza hopes to take the wonderful mentorship and support she’s gotten over the years and pay it forward.

Erin Plasek is a fourth year Chemistry graduate student in the Roberts Group. The topic of research she submitted for the DDF was " Transforming Pharmaceutical Synthesis Through Aryne Chemistry." More broadly speaking, Erin is interested in organometallic approaches to synthesize important organic molecules. A goal that she is currently working on in her research is using data science to predict selectivity outcomes of aryne reactions. Erin will also be beginning the job application process this summer and she is hoping to secure a position in the pharmaceutical industry.

Rachel Rapagnani is a fourth year Chemistry graduate student in the Tonks Group. Her overarching interest in chemistry is the synthesis of sustainable polymers, specifically polymers derived from waste feedstocks - her DDF statement was titled “Synthesis of Recyclable and Biodegradable Polyesters from Carbon Dioxide and Butadiene.” Right now Rachel is working towards the ring-opening copolymerization of CO2 and a CO2-derived monomer of interest, along with pursuing a collaboration focused on the rearrangement of polymer backbones. One of her career goals is to work for 3M or a similar large chemical company; she believes emphasizing sustainability on this scale has the potential to have a major impact.

Shelby Auger is a fifth year Chemistry graduate student in the Distefano Group. She enjoys studying how diseases and cells develop on a molecular level. In particular, Shelby looks at the relationship between prenylation, a post-translational modification of proteins, and disease development using metabolic labeling and proteomic techniques. 

“I received this award for my work exploring how prenylation changes in the brains of AD model mice using proteomics. In this project I found a subset of prenylated proteins that are over-prenylated in the brain tissue of mice and showed that these proteins are regulators of amyloid plaque formation. This is one of the diverse projects where I use this technique; I have also explored prenyaltion's relationship to heart development, autophagy, aging, and neutrophil development.” – Shelby Auger

Shelby is currently experimenting with modifications of her research group’s methodology to increase rigor and reproducibility of their proteomic analysis. This will help in the study of smaller and more delicate shifts in prenylation during cellular development and disease pathogenesis. She is also working on covering her entire desk in stickers, and is getting pretty close!

The Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship gives UMN’s most accomplished PhD candidates an opportunity to devote full-time effort to their research by providing time to finalize and write their dissertation during the fellowship year.