Meet our Chemistry Ambassadors

The Department of Chemistry at Wayne State University strives to provide a nurturing environment to learn both inside and outside the classroom. As a community, want to highlight students working their hardest to take full advantage of this environment through classes, research, and service in our department. These Chemistry Ambassadors show what great things Wayne State University students can achieve in the chemical sciences.

Vince Pallo: Biochemistry and chemical biology

After yearning for more opportunities to pursue advanced STEM questions as a high school student, Vince was very excited to join the chemistry department at Wayne State. He knew many faculty members were doing interesting research in the department. Moreover, being a premier research university in the urban setting of Detroit, Vince knew he would be exposed to a more diverse community, which would allow him to grow his communication skills.

While Vince originally planned to list all the faculty and rank them in terms of his interest in their respective research, he initially spoke with Professor Charlie Fehl since Dr. Fehl was attending a mixer for undergraduate students. After their conversation turned into discussing research questions about the biochemical processes most interesting to Vince's intended career, he became very excited to pursue research with Professor Fehl. Once Vince began working in the actual lab, Professor Fehl helped plan a path that would expose him to methods used extensively in work Vince really wants to do: gene editing. Vince plans to use this experience to pursue studies in a molecular biology or cellular biology graduate program and wants to follow an academic career track. Vince feels the experience of being an undergraduate researcher will help him in other important ways. Being able to engage with people across several cultures and learn from people with different backgrounds enhanced Vince's research experience. Vince recently earned a James C. French Undergraduate Chemistry Scholarship for his outstanding performance in chemistry classes and activities doing research in Professor Fehl's lab.

Zoee Harris: Biochemistry and forensic investigation and policing

Zoee Harris

After her first semester at Wayne, Zoee met with chemistry department chairperson, Professor Matthew Allen, as part of the department’s program to welcome new students. This meeting informed her about research opportunities for undergraduate students and how these opportunities impact students’ experience at Wayne State. Since she was projected to graduate early, Zoee wanted to get involved in exciting research opportunities happening in the Chemistry department as soon as possible. After reaching out to potential advisors, Zoee decided to work with Professor Jennifer Stockdill whose group investigates biomimetic molecules as novel cures to persistent diseases and probes microbes. Given her past success working with undergraduate students, Professor Stockdill was happy to take Zoee into her group on projects aimed to improve chemistry education. Even though those projects were disrupted by COVID, Zoee was persistent in pursuing the right research project for her.

Once undergraduate students were allowed to re-engage in research activities during mid-2021, Zoee got into the lab to work on a project supported by the Barber research program, which seeks to enable interdisciplinary, undergraduate research across the Wayne State campus. In her project, Zoee wants to understand the impact of the biochemical agent anabaenopeptin on human health. Among other things, these biomarkers can act as signatures of harmful bacteria in the fresh waterways of southeast Michigan and can tell us if water is safe to use for drinking, swimming, and fishing. Zoee is working with Professor Stockdill and Dr. Judy Westwrick of the Wayne Chemistry Department in collaboration with Professor Andrew Fribley of the Wayne State Medical School. Zoee will develop novel methods to make synthetic versions of anabaenopeptin while her collaborators will analyze their structure and toxicity. Zoee hopes to use this research experience to prepare for a career as a medical doctor researching the importance of genetic ancestry in women’s fertility or forensic pathology.
 

Justin Ahrens: Biochemistry and chemical biology and public health

Justin Aherns

During his second year at Wayne, Justin began investigating research opportunities in the chemistry department. After reaching out to several professors whose research looked interesting, Justin met with Professor Jeremy Kodanko, who runs a cutting-edge lab studying research in organic and organometallic chemistry. His initial work in Professor Kodanko’s lab involved the basics of scientific research: reading, analyzing, and critiquing the existing literature in published papers. Justin learned about chemical mechanisms and characterization techniques quickly from his new, fellow group members. In particular, he helped graduate students prepare better public presentations for conferences and candidacy exams.

Following a year of learning chemistry research remotely due to COVID restrictions, Justin worked with Professors Kodanko and Thomas Kocarek of the Wayne State Department of Pharmacology to prepare and win a Barber research award in May 2021. The Barber program seeks to enable interdisciplinary, undergraduate research across the Wayne State campus by paying students stipends for their research efforts. In his project, Justin is trying to synthesize Iridium(III) probes to understand the behavior of a superfamily of enzymes called Cytochrome P450. Specifically, Justin is designing, making, and characterizing Ir(III)-containing molecules to probe the enzyme CYP3A4, which is the main enzyme for drug metabolism in human liver cells called hepatocytes. Justin and his team hope to better understand how the human liver breaks down drug molecules to increase their life span in the human body and reduce unwanted side effects.

In addition to feeding his interest in chemistry, Justin has found doing research in the chemistry department gives him a sense of community that he didn’t get from just taking classes. Most importantly, he finds it really cool that the professors treat undergrad researchers as equals who have something to contribute scientifically. Moreover, unlike classes, you can talk to lab mates who have a wide range of knowledge to help you understand chemistry more completely. There’s no need to find a tutor! As of right now, Justine plans to pursue a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and work as a researcher designing and optimizing drugs to better people’s health.