Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois

ChBE undergrad selected as Woese research scholar

Not every student dreams of spending his or her summer on the beach. Some would rather pursue their passions on campus, spending the long summer days in an air-conditioned lab crunching numbers or plating cells. For two lucky undergraduates researching at the Institute for Genomic Biology, that dream is now a reality, made possible by the Carl R. Woese Undergraduate Research Scholarship.

“I’m learning to never be afraid to ask questions, never be afraid to ask people to repeat themselves and to clarify information,” said Woese scholar Rebecca Wipfler, a rising sophomore in Molecular and Cellular Biology. “But I’m also learning to be more independent, and to pay attention to details and what’s going on around me. […] It’s given me the opportunity to see what it’s like to be a full-time researcher.”

The Woese Undergraduate Research Scholarship offers exceptional students a stipend to fund their room and board for a ten week summer program. Recipients will continue work begun with an IGB member or affiliate during the academic year, with the intention of completing a largely independent project and final report by the end of the summer.

Woese scholar and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering student Elijah Karvelis.
Woese scholar and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering student Elijah Karvelis

Wipfler, along with fellow Woese Scholar Elijah Karvelis, a rising senior in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, were chosen via a competitive application process: over 30 students already working in IGB labs applied. IGB Fellows selected finalists, with IGB Director Gene Robinson approving the new scholars. After a short break for finals and commencement season, Wipfler and Karvelis are hard at work, learning what it feels like to research full time.

“The time is great,” Karvelis said. “Not having to worry about classes, but also not having to worry about working a part-time job to pay rent and buy food and that type of thing, it really allows me to devote all my time to research, which is what I want to do.”

Karvelis is working in the research group of Dr. Brendan Harley, an associate professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and theme leader at IGB. Karvelis is looking at microfluidic devices in the study of glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a particularly deadly form of brain cancer.

“These devices allow us to set up hydrogels that we can put different cell types in. On either side of the gel we have these channels, and in the channels we can add different media, supplemented with different factors that will affect the morphology of the cell and how they interact,” explains Karvelis. “Right now I’m trying to grow vascular buds within the gels. Once that’s accomplished, I might look at ways to incorporate GBM cells within that, and see how they migrate along the vasculature.

“I don’t know much about it—yet—or where it’s going to go, but that’s kind of the exciting part.”

While Karvelis is studying microfluidics in the Regenerative Biology and Tissue Engineering theme space, Wipfler is looking at microorganisms as part of the Biocomplexity research theme, within the Whitaker research group. Her research is focused on physically characterizing the exterior protein coat of Sulfolobus islandicus, an archaeal species found in hot springs.

Rebecca Wipfler, Molecular and Cellular Biology student and Woese scholar.
Rebecca Wipfler, Molecular and Cellular Biology student and Woese scholar

“It’s an honor to be a Woese scholar, especially as someone researching Archaea. He led the team in rewriting the tree of life, and one of the questions our lab group is trying to answer is what was the last common ancestor between Archaea and eukaryotes,” said Wipfler. “This wouldn’t even be a goal without [Woese] and his research.”

Written by Kathryne Metcalf of IGB. Photos by Kathryn Faith and Kathryne Metcalf.