MIDDLEBURY, Vt. - Livia Vastag, a senior at Middlebury College, has won the inaugural Frank and Sara McKnight Prize in Undergraduate Chemistry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Vastag was awarded the $2,000 top prize for her work, titled “Mechanism and Kinetics of Oxidation of Guanosine Derivatives by Pt(IV) Complexes.”

Vastag was selected from among more than 100 undergraduates representing 85 universities and colleges from 28 states who took part in the competition. Twelve finalists traveled to New Braunfels, Texas, in mid-November for the UT Southwestern biochemistry department’s annual retreat to give poster presentations on their work. Winners were chosen both for the significance of their work and the quality of their presentation.

“I was very honored to receive the prize,” said Vastag, “especially after getting to know the other finalists. They all do impressive work and love chemistry. It was a pleasure to spend the weekend with a group of like-minded people. At the conference I talked for three hours straight about my research, with about 10 different people, and some of them gave me very good ideas for future work.”

Vastag credited her professors and fellow students at Middlebury, saying, “I could never have achieved this without Professor Sunhee Choi and the rest of the chemistry and biochemistry department. It’s an amazing team, really.” [Read an earlier story on Professor Choi, Livia Vastag and other students involved in summer biochem research.]

The $1,000 second-place award went to Sheel Dodani, a senior at the University of Texas-Dallas, for her work on “The Synthesis and Properties of Tunable Redox-Active para Wurster’s Crowns.” Valeriy Shubinets of the University of Chicago received third place, and $500, for his research project, “Gold-catalyzed Cycloisomerization to Enable the Practical Approach to Pleuromutilin Antibiotics.” 

The other finalists were:
. Erin Anderson, Illinois Wesleyan University;
. Keriann Backus, Brown University;
. Marian Laughery, Washington State University;
. Daniel Le, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo;
. Michelle Leibrand, University of San Diego and the Scripps Research Institute;
. Theresa Liang, University of California, Berkeley;
. Becky Peterson, University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point;
. Carlyn Tan, Northwestern University; and
. Buck Taylor, Willamette University.

Said Vastag, the only finalist from a liberal arts college, “The conference was interesting, and it was especially useful to be ‘forced’ to collect and organize my research-related thoughts and results. I don’t know about other researchers, but it’s so easy for me to get lost in the details and routines of laboratory work. After collecting results and seeing the ‘whole picture,’ I’m always filled with new energy and purpose, so it was great doing that.”

She said her experience at the conference also gave her a new appreciation for her Middlebury education. “As a science major at Midd,” she said, “I get to use cutting-edge instrumentation on my own, while students at other schools either had never heard about these instruments, or are not allowed to use them without supervision or standing and waiting in line first.”

Dr. Steven McKnight, chairman of UT Southwestern’s Department of Biochemistry, created the McKnight Prize to honor his parents, “because they have been the best parents imaginable,” he said. The award is intended to promote undergraduate research in chemistry through recognition of outstanding accomplishment. UT Southwestern Medical Center, one of the premier medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. Its more than 1,400 full-time faculty members include four active Nobel Prize winners.

- Tim Etchells
director, interactive communications