Cindy Bither
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Cadet Posters Place at Chemistry Society Meeting

FullTextImage/img/@altCadets Phillip Pryor (left) and Dylan Kelly present their first-place poster at SERMACS. –- Photo courtesy of Maj. Dan Harrison.

LEXINGTON, Va., Dec. 12, 2013 – Nine VMI chemistry majors recently had the chance to see and hear about cutting-edge research in their field when they attended the Southeast Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society, more commonly known as SERMACS. Two of those cadets, Philip Pryor ’14 and Dylan Kelly ’14, had the honor of winning first prize in the undergraduate poster presentation contest.

The event, which was held in Atlanta, Ga., Nov. 12-16, attracted approximately 3,000 people, ranging from chemists working in business and industry to chemistry professors and teachers, graduate students, and undergraduates.

VMI has been sending cadets to SERMACS for several years, said Maj. Dan Harrison ’05, who recalled going to the conference when he was a cadet. Harrison and Col. Daren Timmons, head of the chemistry department, accompanied this year’s group. Funding for the cadets’ travel was provided by the VMI Center for Undergraduate Research, while funding for the professors’ travel came from the dean’s office.

“It’s a great place to interact with one another,” said Harrison of the gathering. “It gives [cadets] an opportunity to see that there really is a huge world out there as far as chemistry is concerned.”

Harrison said he was particularly pleased to see six of the nine cadets present their research to the group. “For the size of this department, that’s pretty fantastic,” he noted.

Pryor, one of the prize winners, said that he felt his time in Atlanta had been well spent, not least of all because he’s considering graduate school and SERMACS included a graduate school fair.

“It was very much an eye-opening experience,” said Pryor. “It was really cool to see the new, novel things that are happening in chemistry.”

At the conference, Pryor and Kelly presented a poster titled, “PPM1A Purification, Active Site Determination and Mutagenesis.”

PPM1A is a metal-dependent protein that is involved with human cell regulation and growth, Pryor explained. He added that manganese is the metal necessary for the protein to do its work. In their lab work, he and Kelly have been isolating and then mutating the protein so they can determine which sites on the protein the metal actually binds to.

“Not a lot is known about this protein, [but] it’s important because it determines if a cell dies or if it grows,” Pryor noted. Pryor is writing his chemistry honors thesis on this work, which he has undertaken under the supervision of Lt. Col. Dan McCain.

Also getting a lot of out of the trip to Atlanta was Dylan Guthrie ’15. Guthrie plans to commission in the Air Force after VMI, and he’s also been considering medical school. Since his return from SERMACS, though, he’s found himself thinking more and more about graduate school in chemistry instead. He’s also planning to present his own research at the conference next year.

“Going to SERMACS has given me a different opinion about [graduate school],” said Guthrie. “It kind of got me excited. Chemistry is not just textbooks. It applies to real life, and I thought that was cool. It was an enlightening experience.”

That, said Harrison, is exactly why VMI encourages cadets to attend. Without exposure to the wider field, he noted, cadets won’t be able to imagine all of the places a career in chemistry might take them.

“The possibilities are endless when it comes to chemistry,” said Harrison. “We want them to see that and get them excited about doing chemistry, doing science, and contributing to the understanding of nature in its essence.”

In addition to Pryor, Kelly, and Guthrie, other cadets attending the conference were Thomas Bradshaw ’14, Mark Collie ’15, Carly Day ’14, Abraham Jordan ’14, Angelo Kirchon ’16, and Zachary Ratka ’14.

–Mary Price