Phil Schneider Alumni of the Year

schneider_croppedOn April 10, Dr. Phil Schneider, class of ‘79, was honored with the 2014 Distinguished Alumni Award for the Chemistry and Biochemistry department. Dr. Schneider, an orthopedic surgeon and Medical Director at Holy Cross Hospital, credits his undergraduate experience at UMD for the course of his professional life.

“Getting my undergraduate degree at Maryland helped me focus on what I wanted to become. I love orthopedics, because we get to fix things that are wrong. In many other areas of medicine a doctor will be in the position of managing a chronic condition. The patient may not get worse, but they will never be better. But in orthopedics, we can often find the problem and fix it. The coolest thing my education has allowed me to do is help semi-paralyzed people to walk again.”

He credits the excellent program for the solid grounding it gave him.

“I found that, in my first and partly into my second year of medical school, what I was being taught I had already learned at Maryland. It was mainly review for me, and many of my other classmates who came from other schools were not as well prepared.”

When Dr. Schneider came to the University of Maryland, it was a much different place.

“Back in 1975, when I started, the school was a commuter school. There were around 40,000 students. I actually commuted the entire time I attended, driving in from Silver Spring.”

To make his college experience the best he could, Dr. Schneider joined a lot of organizations including becoming an ODK member and joining student government. But, he notes, there have been many amazing changes from then to the present.

“When the College Park campus became the flagship school in the 80’s a lot of work happened to make it an elite school. Entry requirements became tougher. Some programs were moved to other campuses. Dorms were built. It’s gratifying to see the University change, during my lifetime, from what was considered a run-of-the-mill public college into a top tier research institution.  It’s more like a private university now with regard to how the students are valued, and the type of community it has. It offers a private university education, but at a state school price.”

Dr. Schneider’s commitment to the community continues as he is on the board of trustees for the University of Maryland Foundation, is part of Friends of Men’s Basketball, and is also part of the Red Coat Society which supports football.  He also is conducting research with Dr. Frederick Khachik, lectures in the Neuroanatomy class with Dr. Joshua Singer, and gives lectures in the required professional development classes that help chemistry and biochemistry majors prepare for their careers.

When asked how he keeps up with all of his professional and avocational commitments, he joked that he “doesn’t sleep much.”

More seriously, however, education in general, and education in particular at Maryland, is a deeply important subject for him.

“Education is what changes a person’s life. It’s an equalizer. It is the greatest key to bettering our civilization.”

A Conversation with a Millard Alexander Fellowship Awardee: Benjamin Roembke

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChemistry graduate student Benjamin Roembke entered the University of Maryland in 2010 to pursue his passion for chemistry and the life sciences, and has found much success here.  Working with Dr. Herman Sintim, he has used the tools of organic chemistry to probe the functioning of biological systems.   To recognize his accomplishments and support his graduate education, Ben was recently awarded a Millard and Lee Alexander Fellowship in Chemistry.

“This fellowship is so important because it provides me with freedom to focus on my research, rather than being forced to find a non-applicable, outside job.” said Roembke. “Thus it allows me to work more efficiently and hopefully expedite the graduation process. It even gave me a little time off to go and get married to my beautiful wife, Leslie!”

For Roembke, the fellowship could not have come at a better time, because it allowed him to focus on the exciting results his project was producing, and to publish his research (Roembke et al., Mol. Biosyt. 2014, 10, 1568).

His PhD studies are focused on how polymorphism (structural variation) impacts a key bacterial second messenger, cyclic diguanosine monophosphate (c-di-GMP).   This messenger determines the bacterial lifestyle, aka whether bacteria will be planktonic (free floating, single cells) or biofilm (surface attached colonies). Biofilm bacteria are particularly problematic as they are difficult to treat with traditional antibiotics.  An important factor that affects the biology of c-di-GMP is its polymorphism (ability to form clusters with distinct structures). For instance, WspR a protein that synthesizes c-di-GMP in Pseudomonas, has been shown to have an active site (A-site), responsible for the synthesis of c-di-GMP from two molecules of guanosine triphosphate (GTP) and an inhibitory site (I-site). The I-site binds a particular c-di-GMP dimer structure, which forms when c-di-GMP is at high concentrations. This dimer deactivates the prote

Ben’s most recent project was to study the thermodynamics of these c-di-GMP (and other cyclic dinucleotide) dimers by using synthetic analogs of the natural compounds.in, preventing it from further synthesizing c-di-GMP.  This chemical feedback loop allows the protein to self-regulate so that c-di-GMP isn’t overproduced in the cell. It is a magnificent demonstration of how nature maintains efficiency and balance.

“This can potentially provide a new methodology for discovering new anti-biofilm drugs.”

Roembke holds a B.S. degree from Towson University, and has enjoyed the opportunity to be a part of the teaching mission of the University of Maryland.

“I really enjoy interaction with blossoming undergraduate scientists.” said Roembke. “Specifically, I have taught organic chemistry on several occasions. One thing I have found is organic chemistry is widely considered a stumbling block in the undergraduate curricula. It is my goal as a future educator to get rid of that stigma and show that organic chemistry can be easily understood through conceptual based learning. This has been a big advantage to Maryland as I have been given lots of freedom and responsibility in the classroom, which has really allowed me to grow as an educator. In addition to teaching positions, I am also considering some non-traditional career paths including nuclear energy and consulting. I think it would be fun to “play my hand” at something else for a time and see how I enjoy it.”

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“I think my favorite part about becoming a PhD chemist at Maryland has been the general skillset with which it has provided me. The program has not only given me technical knowledge about my field but an ability to solve difficult problems through literature research and critical thinking. This is something that I believe makes me useful in many fields, which will allow me to keep my options open as I seek a career. Another joy of Maryland is that I am surrounded by a caring and devoted research, teaching and administrative faculty and staff. It has been a joy to meet such a diverse group of people that truly cares about your well-being.”

The Millard and Lee Alexander Graduate Fellowships in Chemistry were made possible through the generous support of theoretical chemistry faculty member Dr. Millard Alexander and his wife Lee.   In addition to Ben, three chemistry graduate students – Amanda Souna, Brittany Vinciguerra and Yi Yu – are supported by this endowed fellowship fund this year.

Huang Qiu’s Journey; An International Student’s Perspective on the University of Maryland Experience

Huang Qiu PhotoHuang Qiu, a Ph.D. student attached to Dr. Michael Doyle’s research group in the department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is the first student to come to the Chemistry and Biochemistry department through a joint Ph.D. program in cooperation with the East China Normal University in Shanghai, China. This six year program, when successfully completed, will result in Mr. Qiu having earned a Ph.D. from both institutions, as well as valuable personal and professional experience spanning two dynamic cultures.

“I wanted to come to the U.S. to learn,” says Mr. Qiu. “The U.S. has stronger academics and I wanted to go abroad for a different experience [than what I knew] in China.”

Mr. Qiu is ten months into his three year commitment to his education and research. Once he is finished in the US, he will go back to China to complete the education requirements there. His ultimate education and career goal is to be a researcher because he loves the idea of discovering something no one else has discovered.  “He has already done this in his research at Maryland,” says his research advisor, Mike Doyle. “In one of his projects he has converted an ester to a diketone, and we are trying to find out how this has occurred.”  His research here is focused on gold catalyzed reactions, and he is nearing the final stages for the publication of two manuscripts.

“I want to find new tools for the chemistry tool box that anyone can use,” says Mr. Qiu.

As excited as he is about his research, there are other challenges he finds just as exciting, surprising and sometimes difficult. Also, he is fascinated and surprised by how independent American students are.

“It is much more difficult than I thought. In China, a student lives in the dorm and eats at the [campus] restaurants or cafeterias. But here, I have had to learn to cook, to clean, and to take care of myself.” says Mr. Qiu.

He also is finding time for more social activities. He loves to play basketball with his friends, though the amount of open space in which to play was surprising to him.

“We do not have this much open space in China.”

With all of the challenges of his program, the language, the work, the daily tasks, Mr. Qiu says everyone he has met has been very helpful.

“I get a lot of help. I can always ask people in the department and they are very supportive.”

When asked what advice he has for any other student thinking of leaving their home country for an education at the University of Maryland, he offers this:

“Language is very important, so prepare your English. Always communicate and be open with your group members. Make many friends. It’s very important if you come here alone. If you make friends, your life is very colorful.”

Chris Jarzynski Appointed as IPST Director/Grant

ChrisJarzinsky2Dr. Christopher Jarzynski has been appointed as the Director of the Institute for Physical Science and Technology (IPST) effective July 1, 2014.  IPST has a faculty of 30, including seven jointly appointed in Chemistry & Biochemistry.  One of his goals is to raise the visibility of the Institute within the University of Maryland.

“I hope to help shape the future of the Institute,” said Dr. Jarzynski. “I believe strongly in the core purpose – to promote interdisciplinary research and education. IPST can be more effective for this purpose than traditional departments.”

IPST is in charge of chemistry physics, biophysics, and helps run Applied Mathematics & Statistics and Scientific Computation (AMSC). Dr. Jarzynski’s main goal is to raise the visibility of IPST within the University in order to further encourage excellence in interdisciplinary work by integrating people, science and technology.

In addition to this appointment, Dr. Jarzynski, and his collaborator Dr. Krishnaprasad, has been awarded a grant of $1.8 million over five years (3-year base plus 2-year extension) from the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI), awarded by the Army Research Office for work relating to the development of perspectives on nonequilibrium thermodynamics and control theory.

“Historically, thermodynamics have been about large/macroscopic systems like steam engines or power plants,” says Dr. Jarzynski. “Something I’ve been fascinated with is how the laws of thermodynamics behave at the nanoscale. I think it is a question that hasn’t been fully explored and, for a long time, this question has been academic and abstract. Also, control theory has been very well developed by engineers at the macroscopic level, but has not been a topic that most chemists or physicists are familiar with.

However, now technology allows us to probe and/or manipulate individual molecules; like, for example, individual pieces of DNA. So, this grant will allow us to bring together Dr. Krishnaprasad’s control theory expertise with the new developments in nonequilibrium thermodynamics to develop a kind of control theory to apply to machines the size of molecules.”

If successful, this fundamental theoretical research will uncover the principles that allow molecular machines to process information. The theoretical tools developed here will be used in experiments involving synthetic, biomolecular motors.