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Undergraduate Researchers Receive Beckman Scholarships

Vladislav Sviderskiy and Mengxun "Monica" Li, third-year majors in the University of Virginia's chemistry College of Arts & Sciences...

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Vladislav Sviderskiy and Mengxun "Monica" Li, third-year majors in the University of Virginia's chemistry College of Arts & Sciences, have received Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation scholarships designed to promote research in chemistry.

The "Equal Partners in Discovery" Beckman Scholars program at U.Va. provides one or more $19,300 scholarships to highly talented, research-oriented students who will work in mentors' laboratories for two summers and the intervening academic year. In addition to summer salary and academic year financial support, these scholarships sponsor participation in professional and national scientific meetings.

Sviderskiy, 20, of Henrico, is specializing in biochemistry and researching metal catalysts for water oxidation to allow more efficient storage of solar energy in chemical fuels.

Li, 21, of Centreville, is specializing in environmental chemistry. Her research focuses on using metal complexes to synthesize new organic compounds that may possess biological activity.

They join 2010 Beckman scholars Jeneva Laib, a biomedical engineering major, and Alan Chien, a chemistry major.

Funded by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, the program is designed to advance the education, research training and personal development of select students in chemistry, biochemistry and the biological and medical sciences. The foundation makes grants to program-related, non-profit research institutions to promote research in chemistry and the life sciences, broadly interpreted, and particularly to foster the invention of methods, instruments and materials that will open up new avenues of research in science.

"The Beckman program at U.Va. is noteworthy for encompassing many different scientific disciplines, with mentors from biology, biomedical engineering, chemistry and medicine," said William H. Guilford, associate professor and undergraduate program director in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and director of the Beckman Scholars Program. "We wanted it to be a showcase for trans-disciplinary education that has always been a hallmark of U.Va. and the Jeffersonian tradition."

Li's work fits well with the interdisciplinary nature of the work that Guilford espouses.

"I have a deep interest in both organic synthesis and the design of pharmaceuticals," she said.

Li, the daughter of Zhichun Song and Li Li, is an Echols Scholar, a College Science Scholar, undergraduate teaching assistant for honors chemistry and a medical services volunteer for Madison House. She is also a member of the American Chemical Society. She plans to study organic or organometallic chemistry in graduate school.

"I would like to be a professor of chemistry so I can lead research of my own design as well as teach undergraduates," she said. "Teaching is just as important to me as research."

Li said the scholarship provides her an opportunity to share her research with leading scholars and scientists in the field at the Beckman Scholars symposium in Irvine, Calif.

"I am pleasantly surprised and humbled to have received such an honor," she said. "Having received the Beckman Scholarship adds to my desire and motivation to do my best work in the laboratory."

"Monica is the kind of student one meets once every decade," said chemistry professor Walter Dean Harman, a mentor for both students. "She is capable of extraordinary things."

Harman also praised Li for her teaching, noting last fall she took 21 hours of courses, worked as a researcher and was a teaching assistant for three undergraduate courses.

"Rather than hold her office hours in the chemistry building, Monica met the students in their dorm lounge," Harman said. "Scores of students showed up for her marathon review sessions. She is truly an extraordinary person. Very few undergraduates whom I have worked with over the past two decades have shown as much promise at this stage in their education as Monica Li."

Sviderskiy is synthesizing a series of proposed molecular catalysts for the formation of oxygen containing a central atom of rhodium, iridium or cobalt, experiments which could have far-reaching consequences for how solar energy and other sources of electrical power are stored and utilized, particularly in transportation.

"Finding an alternative energy source that can meet long-term energy needs is vital to continual global development," he said.

Sviderskiy said the grant allows him to continue his research.

"The Beckman Scholarship offers many great opportunities for both my future career and in my research," Sviderskiy said. "The program offers substantial funding that will allow me to continue research. In addition, I will be able to meet top researchers in various scientific fields and learn more about their research, and the annual Beckman Scholars Symposium will provide me the opportunity to meet exceptionally motivated individuals who excel in their research fields."

The son of Oleg Sviderskiy and Irina Sviderskaya and a graduate of Mills E. Godwin High School, he is a College Science Scholar, an Echols Scholar and a Goldwater Scholarship honorable mention recipient. He was awarded a Harrison Undergraduate Research Grant, and was the recipient of Intermediate Honors and a College Science Scholars Research Stipend. He is a member of the Golden Key International Honor Society and service vice president of Alpha Phi Omega. He is a resident of Brown College and a Madison House medical services volunteer.

Sviderskiy said he wants to pursue a medical degree.

Sviderskiy is working with chemistry professors Thomas Brent Gunnoe and Harman in his research. Harmon said they have worked with more than 60 student researchers during the past two decades and Sviderskiy has distinguished himself.

"Vlad is among the most independent and resourceful of these students," Harman said. "Whether it's digging up references in the literature, setting up new equipment or working out synthetic procedures, Vlad has a determination to overcome obstacles that is rarely seen in this generation of students. Vlad's presentations reveal an in-depth understanding of his project, not only on a 'details' level, but also in the broader context of water oxidation.

"Vlad is already at the level of a first-year graduate student. What he may lack in experience, he makes up for with industriousness and ingenuity."

The University's dedication to undergraduate research helps attract scholarships such as the Beckman, Guilford said.

"U.Va. has an outstanding record of undergraduate student achievement in the basic and applied sciences," Guilford said, who noted that a 2009 survey of the basic and applied science faculty from four schools and 32 departments at U.Va. found 638 undergraduate authors on 492 papers; 21 patents secured by undergraduate students; and undergraduate work supplying the underpinnings of at least 120 extramural grants. "The Beckman Scholars Program at U.Va. was built upon this amazing foundation of faculty who best exemplify the inclusion and mentoring of undergraduates in their research enterprise."