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St. Kate's student spent summer as research scholar at MIT

Jennifer Rowe '14 set her sights on a career in chemistry research and landed a prestigious Amgen scholarship.
Jennifer Rowe '14 set her sights on a career in chemistry research and landed a prestigious Amgen scholarship.
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As St. Catherine University chemistry major Jennifer Rowe ’14 worked on a potential treatment for HIV in the Essigmann Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) this past summer, she realized that her dreams were within reach.

Rowe participated in the Amgen Scholars Program, which provides fully-funded hands-on scientific research experiences for undergraduate students at 10 top research universities in the United States and three in Europe. She was one of 255 U.S. students to be selected as an Amgen Scholar from a national pool of 3,640 applicants.

While Amgen Scholar applicants are allowed to apply to multiple participating research schools, the Essingmann Lab’s research focus on cancer and infectious diseases caught Rowe’s attention, so she decided that MIT was the only place for her. Competition was fierce, with over 900 applicants for MIT alone, but Rowe captured one of the coveted 25 spots.

She completed a summer research project under the mentorship of Professor John Essigmann entitled “Chemical synthesis of mutagenic nucleotide analogs: from inflammation biomarkers to antiviral drugs.”

“Basically, I did organic synthesis with nucleotide analogs to make various molecules that we could test to see if they had mutagenic properties, in which case we could use as a resource to combat HIV,” says Rowe.

“It was absolutely thrilling to be in a lab that has such cutting-edge research that could actually lead to a treatment,” she added.

From July 20-22, Rowe attended the annual Amgen Scholars U.S. Symposium in California. Students shared their summer research projects with their peers and heard firsthand from leading scientists in industry and academia. Rowe was also able to tour the Amgen headquarters, a place where she dreams of one day working.

“I would like to design pharmaceuticals for a biotech company. I don’t want to mass-produce drugs that have already been developed. I want to be the mind behind new inventions or new improvements. I’d like to think of a new way to combat some sort of disease, be it HIV, cancer or other degenerative diseases,” she says.

The accidental chemist

Rowe’s career path wasn’t always so clearly mapped out. She started out in Pre-Occupational Therapy and didn’t take her first class in general chemistry until the summer after her first year. She followed that up with organic chemistry in the fall of her sophomore year.

“She seemed pretty enthusiastic about chemistry. She’s one of those students who is always respectful, on time, does things for the team,” says James Wollack, assistant professor of chemistry.

When Wollack inquired about her major and Rowe shared that she was considering changing it to chemistry, he invited her to do an independent research project instead of a second semester lab.

Rowe worked on a project to target specific proteins that are more prevalent in people with cancer, and helped develop a method to tag those proteins inside the cells so that they glow fluorescently.

“Jenny did rather well on that project; she completed six steps of the seven-step synthesis. We’ve been using her procedures to finish that project up,” says Wollack.

After her research experience at St. Kate’s, Rowe decided to pursue graduate school, and Wollack encouraged her to look for research opportunities outside of St. Kate’s.

“Jenny only saw how I did things when she was here. It’s good to see how other scientists do things. It gives you more tools in your toolbox. Once you have more experiences, you can talk more intelligently about certain topics and then you can use that to both network and sell projects,” says Wollack.

He wasn’t a bit surprised that Rowe was selected as an Amgen Scholar.

“From the moment Jenny decided she was going to graduate school for chemistry, everything she has done has been to that aim. Usually it would be tough to get into a program like that at MIT unless from day one you knew what you were going to do. Since she caught up with the curriculum and was so successful at research, I think that’s what got her in,” says Wollack.

Rowe’s advice to other students who are pursuing summer research opportunities?

“Just go for it. And always highlight your strengths. Show how your interests and experience matches the work they are doing,” she says.

In addition to her work as a research assistant for Professor Wollack, Rowe is heavily engaged in other student activities, including serving as vice-president of the Chemistry Club, a science tutor in the O’Neill Center, and as president of Katie Buddies, a club devoted to helping people with special needs.

Rowe is delivering a chemistry seminar on her Amgen Scholar research from MIT on Nov. 1 from 1:35-2:05 in Mendel Hall, room 102, on the St. Paul campus.

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Oct. 10, 2013 by Sharon Rolenc

See also: Healthcare, Liberal Arts, STEM, Students