Growing up in Jefferson City, Missouri, Dennis Akrobetu '17 enjoyed science courses best, so when it came time to pick a college, he selected Davidson because it provided him opportunities to conduct meaningful research right away. Little did he know at the time, in just three short years his research pursuits would earn him recognition as one of the top undergraduate scientists in the nation.
Akrobetu recently was named a Goldwater Scholar, and as such will receive funding to support his scientific research. Established by the United States Congress in 1986, the Goldwater Scholarship promotes the study of science, math and engineering through scholarships to undergraduate students interested in pursuing careers in those fields.
Akrobetu plans to pursue a career as a physician scientist, working both directly with patients and in a research lab.
"The Goldwater is one of the very few national scholarships at the undergraduate level, and the only large one in the sciences," said Professor of Chemistry Erland Stevens, the campus representative for the Goldwater program. As a result, the monetary reward is only part of its value–"graduate schools in the sciences know that Goldwater winners are serious about the sciences and have a lot of research experience," he said.
Beginning his first year at Davidson, Akrobetu has found opportunities for research year-round, studying such diverse topics as fungus and fruit flies. He spent his first and second summers conducting research with faculty members on campus, and this summer he and four other students will conduct research with Associate Professor of Chemistry Nicole Snyder at the University of Dusseldorf in Germany.
Akrobetu credits Snyder and Professor of Biology Karen Hales, who serve as his academic advisers and research mentors, as well as Associate Professor of Biology Pam Hay, with guiding him along the path that led him to win the Goldwater.
"I was able to connect with mentors and get involved in research early on in my time at Davidson, which is exactly what I was looking for," he said.
Through his various Davidson research projects, Akrobetu has experienced both the excitement of discovery, and the occasional frustration and tedium that precedes it.
"The best part of research is the novelty," he said. "You're doing something that no one else is doing at the moment, and it's a thrill to be the person who figured out the problem."
As a Davidson Research Initiative Fellow last summer, Akrobetu held a Mimms Bioinformatics Research Fellowship and worked with Professor Snyder. The fund was created by Larry '76 and Linda Mimms in 2009 to provide students with hands-on research and discovery opportunities with faculty members. Of the 18 students designated as Mimms Fellows thus far, 16 are either currently enrolled in M.D./Ph.D. programs, or plan to apply within the next year. The remaining two are currently enrolled students, including Akrobetu.
Akrobetu's research with Snyder involved treatment for a fungus that poses a risk of respiratory disease to immune-compromised persons, including chemotherapy patients and HIV positive individuals. Snyder noted that the research ran into some stumbling blocks, but Akrobetu persisted.
"Dennis is a highly intelligent, inquisitive, and motivated young man," Snyder said. "The words ‘back to the drawing board' halfway through the summer would have sent many students reeling. Not Dennis. He saw each setback as a challenge, and like a true scientist he welcomed the opportunity to innovate."
In her nomination of Akrobetu for the scholarship, Hales highlighted the same drive and commitment. "[Dennis] takes notable initiative to push his experiments forward," she said, and also noted his good judgment, organization, and true excitement for his work.
Hales worked with Akrobetu for four semesters and a summer on projects focused on efforts to understand genetic and molecular influences mediating the shaping of mitochondria in specialized tissues in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. He joined her at the Annual Drosophila Research Conference sponsored by the Genetics Society of America, where he presented his work.
"[Dennis has] a keen intellect, persistence, clear communication, motivation and curiosity," Hales said. "He demonstrates all the various skills required to be an effective researcher."