WCSU graduates’ research experience prepares path to Ph.D. studies
Western faculty opened opportunities for 2014 chemistry grads Finneran and Pickel
DANBURY, CONN. — A passion for chemistry research, a guiding hand from valued faculty mentors, and a self-motivated drive for academic and personal achievement will propel 2014 Western Connecticut State University graduates Patrick Finneran and Thomas Pickel to begin Ph.D. studies this fall in two of the nation’s elite doctoral programs.
Finneran and Pickel, who earned Bachelor of Arts degrees in chemistry this May at Western, have taken full advantage of the opportunities presented during their WCSU studies to design and carry out laboratory research as assistants to members of the university’s chemistry faculty. Finneran, of Oakville, will enter Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, to pursue a doctorate in biochemistry and biophysics. Pickel, of Bethel, will begin studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, for a Ph.D. in organometallic chemistry.
The two graduates followed very different paths to their doctoral programs. Finneran has long known that he has a special affinity for chemistry. “I wanted to do chemistry when I was 10 years old,” he recalled, “I just love the way that chemistry explains how everything works. When I found out at Western that I was good at chemistry, I realized that this is something I want to do for the rest of my life.”
By contrast, Pickel had little classroom exposure to chemistry before entering Western and initially considered majoring in biology before shifting his concentration to chemistry. Even then, he said, “it was not until my fourth chemistry course, in organic chemistry, that I decided I really had some aptitude for this. I came to understand that undergraduate chemistry is basically an exercise in critical thinking.”
The common experience that launched both graduates on the path to doctoral studies was their work as research assistants at Western. Finneran, who had considered a pre-med concentration in his freshman year, made a definitive decision to focus on biochemistry after course work with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. J. Helena Prieto led to his selection as Prieto’s assistant in laboratory research focusing on the Plasmodium falciparum, one of the most common protozoan parasite transmitters of malaria to humans. He worked with his faculty mentor to determine the underpinnings of a cellular pathway that can program cell death in the parasite. Elucidating this pathway will assist researchers in gaining improved understanding of the protozoa, an important step toward development of more effective pharmaceutical treatments for malaria.
“Dr. Prieto completely changed my world around,” Finneran said. “She excels at teaching skills and techniques in the lab, and she put all her trust in me as her assistant to help in setting up the lab, identifying research approaches, and deciding where to take the research.” He takes special pride in his work with Prieto on a signaling peptide that will be used in continuing research at Western in years to come.
Prieto noted that Finneran earned recognitions for his academic excellence as recipient of the Boehringer Ingelheim Biochemistry Scholarship, the 2014 Western Research Day Provost’s Award in the natural sciences, and a Sigma Xi research award. She praised his contributions as a teaching assistant and tutor in general chemistry and as president of the Chemistry Club, which earned the “best club” award from the Student Government Association.
“I was very lucky to work with such an enthusiastic student,” she said. “He put all his energy into everything he did. He was instrumental in helping me set up my research lab during my first year at Western, and for that I am very grateful.”
Pickel’s awakening interest in chemistry ignited into a career objective when he began work in the laboratory with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Nicholas J. Greco. Greco took Pickel on as an assistant to conduct research on the synthetic modification of natural DNA as a means to explore DNA activity within biological systems, which has significant applications in the development of drug treatments for viral diseases.
“Dr. Greco is truly a shining example of what a professor should be,” Pickel said. “He didn’t lean over me every second or steer me in a given direction; I was free to make my own decisions, and my own mistakes.” While he admitted that at first he lacked the confidence to trust his own judgment, he added, “I came to realize that by letting me go through this experience on my own, Dr. Greco allowed me to learn for myself what to do, and what not to do. And the ability to do lab work well is a fantastic feeling!”
“Thomas was a dream to have in my laboratory,” Greco observed. “He cared deeply about his project and pushed himself much further than I could have pushed him. As much as Thomas grew as a student, I grew more as a mentor.”
Both Finneran and Pickel will receive full tuition scholarships as well as stipends and other benefits from their graduate schools. For Finneran, Brandeis offers an inviting opportunity during his first year to explore the full breadth of research in progress in the university’s biochemistry/biophysics program before deciding on the project to which he will commit during his doctoral studies. He considers his program well suited to provide preparation either for an academic career – inspired by Prieto and other faculty mentors at Western – or for a research position in the pharmaceutical industry to develop and test new drugs for disease treatment. “I’ll complete my Ph.D. program and then I’ll see where I want to go with that,” he said.
Pickel is equally open to the breadth of career opportunities in both the academic and corporate sectors, and expressed excitement at the preparation that he will receive at Emory in an emerging area of study that promises to break new ground in the chemistry discipline. “The field of organometallic chemistry is very new and very exciting, and holds almost limitless possibilities to explore the development of synthetic goods in energy, medicines and other areas,” he observed.
They share a passion for continuing to deepen their knowledge of chemistry by bringing the breadth of research techniques from diverse areas of the discipline to bear in their doctoral studies. Finneran looks forward to pursuing research at Brandeis that applies fundamentals from physical chemistry to research exploring complex biochemical processes. Pickel emphasized the value of marshaling the techniques and methods of both organic and inorganic chemistry research: “You don’t grow unless you branch out,” he said. “That’s why the learning curve is so steep in organometallic chemistry.”
Finneran and Pickel agreed that their chemistry studies at Western have prepared them well to meet the academic and career challenges ahead. “I came to Western because it was a smaller state school and it had a great science program. I fell in love with Western the day I first toured the Science Building,” Finneran remarked. Over the past four years, he added, “the research that I’ve done here has taught me a lot about life.”
“I owe my acceptance to Emory to Dr. Greco and the other members of the chemistry faculty at Western,” Pickel affirmed. “The research that I’ve done here has opened my mind to a new way of thinking and problem-solving. If something goes wrong in your research, you don’t dwell on it. You learn from your mistakes, do some reading, and decide how to move forward.”
Greco looks forward to tracking both graduates’ progress in the coming years. “I taught both Patrick and Thomas, and found them to exemplify the ideal student: inquisitive, driven and intelligent,” he said. “I am confident they will go on to make WCSU proud.”
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