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Nika Fendler and Vivienne Fang Named First Beckman Scholars

Nike Fendler and Vivienne Fang
(l-r) Beckman Scholars Nika Fendler ’19 and Vivienne Fang ’18

Two students have been named the first Beckman Scholars at Davidson College, thanks to a $104,000 award from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation that will support four scholars over the course of three years. Nika Fendler '19 from Marietta, Georgia, and Vivienne Fang '18 from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, will take advantage of this prestigious opportunity that supports two summers and one academic year of research.

Chemistry Research and German Culture

Fendler is spending the next year and a half participating in a collaborative research effort between Associate Professor of Chemistry Nicole L. Snyder's glycoscience group at Davidson, and Professor Laura Hartmann's macromolecular chemistry group at Heinrich-Heine-Universitaet Duesseldorf, Germany. This summer, Fendler joined Snyder and Hartmann in Duesseldorf where she is working on the first phase of her research project while enhancing her German language skills.

In her application to the Davidson leadership committee that selected the scholars for this opportunity, Fendler explained that this program would allow her to combine her interests in chemistry and German and to begin her dream of participating in investigative science research–the path she hopes her career will follow–while at the same time learning more about native German culture.

As a Beckman Scholar, Fendler's fundamental research project is aimed at understanding how the presentation of carbohydrates that bind to specific proteins located on the surfaces of tumor cells affects their ability to be taken up by those cells via receptor-mediated endocytosis.

Fendler's work combines carbohydrates synthesized in the Snyder lab and specialized scaffolds pioneered by the Hartmann lab for multivalent carbohydrate display. The compounds Fendler is synthesizing may ultimately be used as a platform for the design of new compounds to diagnose and treat tumors associated with the expression of these proteins.

"Nika is an intelligent and motivated young woman with a strong work ethic," said Snyder. "She was specifically recruited to work on this project because of her stellar academic performance, her enthusiasm for conducting original, fundamental research at the interface of chemistry and biology, and her desire to be a part of a collaborative team of international researchers."

The relationship with Fendler and Snyder is partly what drew Fendler to choose Davidson in the first place. While on campus for Decision Davidson, Charles A. Dana Professor of German Studies Scott Denham introduced Fendler to Snyder. Fendler had previously narrowed her top college options to Davidson, Furman and Wake Forest, but she was ultimately drawn to Davidson.

"I knew I would achieve more through being challenged, so Davidson became the obvious choice," she said. "The Beckman Scholars Program is an example of that, too. I'll be working closely with upperclassmen through this program and also getting a taste of independent research. I didn't expect to have an opportunity like this so early in my college career."

Potential English Major turned Gene Researcher

Fang was interested in the Beckman Scholars Program because it allows her to bridge her theoretical knowledge of cell and molecular biology with extended, hands-on experience in a lab setting. Her mentor is Professor of Biology Karen Hales.

"With every STEM course I take at Davidson, I find myself asking for the practical application," she said. "The process of discovering what I love about biology and why I want to do research has been like peeling an onion. A Beckman Scholars Award allows me to explore my interest in genetics, giving me enough time to master technique, ask questions, search for answers with the guidance of my mentor and continue my journey as a learning scientist."

With an interest in genetics and medicine, Fang's research opportunity allows her to continue work that began in Hales' genetics course during the spring semester.

"The class collectively mapped a previously uncharacterized mutation conferring male sterility in fruit flies and sequenced the gene responsible," explained Hales. "This gene is connected to the shaping of mitochondria in developing sperm; a closely related gene likely controls a similar function in other tissues. Over the next 15 months, Vivienne will continue the genetic and molecular characterization of these newly-found genes, whose human version was recently connected to a neurodegenerative disorder by other researchers."

Fang sees this opportunity as a stepping stone to future research, specifically around gene therapy. Coming into Davidson, however, she planned to be an English/history double major.

"When I arrived at Davidson, many of my friends were interested in the sciences, so I gave it a shot," she said. "As it turned out, this is my genuine passion. Davidson has really changed me. I was never told no; professors just helped me find a way to pursue my interests. I hope to apply for a Fulbright or Watson Fellowship following Davidson, and the Beckman Scholars Award prepares me for what might come next."

About the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation

Arnold Beckman always considered the greater good, whether it was through his scientific innovations, business dealings or personal relationships. The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation holds steadfast to the directives of Beckman and his wife Mabel, his values and the mission of the foundation. Beckman believed strongly in reinvesting in science and research, supporting up-and-coming scientists and looking for the future "Arnold Beckmans" of the world.

Beckman Scholars Program awards are institutional, university or college awards. Each year, the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation invites select research, doctoral, masters and baccalaureate universities and colleges to submit applications for the Beckman Scholars Program.