From left to right, Curt Brown, the chair of the ASF Board of Directors, University of Minnesota Astronaut Scholarship recipients Matt DeJong and Macy Vollbrecht and Robert Cabana, Minneapolis native and Director of the Kennedy Space Center.

Q&A with Astronaut Scholarship Recipient Matthew DeJong

CSE student receives one of nation's most prestigious scholarships 

Getting a $10,000 scholarship is quite exciting for any student, but for chemical engineering student Matthew DeJong, the scholarship included a ceremonial check delivered by Robert Cabana, former astronaut and director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

DeJong received the 2019-20 scholarship from the the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF). This prestigious, competitive award is given annually to outstanding sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research-oriented careers in mathematics, engineering, and the natural and applied sciences. In addition, recipients receive mentoring and professional development support, attend the ASF Innovators Gala in Washington, D.C., and have the opportunity to participate in other ASF events.

After his first year at the University of Minnesota, DeJong began working with professor Yiannis Kaznessis to develop probiotic bacteria through gene editing. In his sophomore year, he moved to the lab of professor Benjamin Hackel, who was engineering antimicrobial peptides that could target specific pathogens. There, DeJong developed an innovative system for high-throughput evaluation of millions of peptide variants. This past summer, he completed a research internship through the German Academic Exchange (DAAD) at the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology.

In this Q&A, DeJong talks about his research experience and what it was like to receive the scholarship.

What led you to pursue research at the University of Minnesota?

I came to the University wanting to go into medical school after completing my bachelor's degree. In order to compete a certain medical school requirement, I started volunteering at Fairview Hospital and gave hand massages at a pediatric oncology unit and an elderly mental health unit. I noticed that I couldn’t give hand massages to certain children due to infection or chemotherapy. I had to do a lot of training for antimicrobial resistant infections because they are very prevalent in hospitals and are very dangerous to children who are taking cancer therapy. I was inherently interested in research anyway, so while I was also going to get research experience to complete another requirement of medical school, I saw that in the chemical engineering department there were professors doing research with antimicrobial peptides designed to target antimicrobial resistant infections that I’d previously seen in the hospital, so when I saw that I knew I wanted to research it and find the solution to the problem that I witnessed while volunteering.

As I was in the lab more and more, I realized I liked chemical engineering more and more. I realized that as a doctor, I can help individual cases, but in terms of cancer therapy, if I’m the one behind the scenes developing the actual therapies, I’m not saving tens of lives, I’m saving tens of thousands of lives.

Why is the research you’ve done important to you?

The research I’ve done is important to the world because it’s going to make people healthier, but to me, it’s more about proving that I am capable of being at the forefront of science. Growing up, you’re taught science is this huge thing. You’ve been taking science classes essentially since first grade, and what’s important to me is getting to the level where I can finally use what I’ve learned to actually create something new that hasn’t been done before. With any good research, it’s collaborative and it’s not all just me, but I want to prove to myself that I’m at the point where I have learned enough through my experiences that I can start to make new science and technology and actually do things that will impact lives. 

What was it like to research for 10 weeks over the summer in Germany through the German Academic Exchange? 

I learned a lot about how research is done in Germany. In the lab I was in, they’re tackling more industry-related issues. At the U of M, my research is funded by the National Science Foundation, where my research was centered on more of a broad topic, like antimicrobial resistance. In Germany, the research was centered on how to make a certain process in pharmaceutical engineering better, so it was a very industry-related problem. All the industry partners would come to our lab and present us their industry problems along with funding to solve it, whereas in America, we get funding to solve a broader issue in whatever way we can. It’s different and interesting, and I learned a lot about how research varies from country to country. It was also a great summer in general. I would travel and see as much as I could all the time. 

What has it been like to receive the Astronaut Scholarship?

What was really cool about receiving the scholarship is what happens beyond the scholarship. As a part of it, you get to go to Washington, D.C., at the end of the summer. With most other scholarships you win, they just give you the money and the title that goes with it, which is great and useful, but it usually ends at that. With the Astronaut Scholarship, you get the title and the money, but you get to also go and meet all the other scholars, tour the National Institutes of Health, and network with astronauts.

A story that stood out to me from my time in Washington, D.C., was when I met Charlie Duke, who is an astronaut who has been on the moon. He talked about how strange it is to stand on the moon and look into the sky above you and see Earth instead of the moon. To hear him talk about it was amazing, and I wouldn’t have gotten to hear that story if I wouldn’t have gotten the scholarship.

Is there a future problem that you hope to solve through your research?

I would like to develop technologies that would help treat autoimmune diseases, such as Celiac disease, as it affects many people across the world—about one percent—and there currently is not a cure. Additionally, my brother happens to have Celiac disease, so I have personal interests in solving a cure to Celiac disease as it would greatly improve his quality of life along with many others.

How did your research experience impact what you want to do in the future?

It was through doing research in the Hackel Lab at the U of M that I gradually changed from wanting to become a medical doctor to wanting to pursue a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and afterward develop pharmaceuticals. When I made that shift, I always thought I would go into industry, such as working for a pharmaceutical company. Now, I’m shifting my focus further and want to go into the professorship route instead. I’ve loved mentorship and seeing my mentees grow over time and develop as their own independent researchers. I also like to research and find it very interesting and impactful. The combination of those two things are being a professor.

Do you have any advice for students interested in researching at the U?

You just have to ask. If you want to do research with your professor, you just have to simply ask. Sometimes you have to ask a lot, such as when I was first trying to find research after my freshman year when it was tough to find a professor who actually wanted to take me on. It took a lot of emails, but if you keep asking, someone will take you on if you try hard enough. Once you get into research, if you want to take on more responsibility or go a different direction with your research, again, all you have to do is ask.

Story by student Kathryn Richner

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