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News & Stories: 2007-08

Sophomore to tackle the 'puzzle' of research as Beckman Scholar
May 14, 2008

At this point in her Calvin career, sophomore chemistry major Sarah Tasker is in Merida, a town in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, speaking Spanish ’round the clock and taking classes at a local university. After Memorial Day, however, Tasker will return to the Calvin campus, to a familiar setting. “I love the lab,” she said.

Tasker will also be stepping into some brand new shoes as Calvin’s first Beckman Scholar. “Research is really my passion,” she confessed.

Calvin's first Beckman Scholar, Sarah TaskerShe will be doing plenty of it.

Calvin established the Beckman Scholars Program in April through a $77, 000 grant from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. The program allows intensive 15-month research experiences in chemistry, biology or biochemistry for a select number of Calvin students.

As the Beckman Scholar, Tasker is expected to take ownership of her research project from start to finish, writing the proposal, working independently to complete the project and, eventually, publishing the results in a peer-reviewed journal. Tasker will also present her findings at a special summer gathering of Beckman Scholars.

The distinctiveness of the Beckman program is the sustained, in-depth focus it allows the scholar—one this year and three others over the next two years—on one research project.

It’s a prospect Tasker finds challenging: “Discovering how the reaction works is really interesting to me. It’s interesting because it’s like solving a puzzle. You have all these ideas of how it could work, and then what you do is devise experiments to knock options out of the ring,” she said. “It’s kind of like, ‘Can I get it at this angle? No, I have to go around the back.’ There’s so many different angles. It’s strategy. I really, really like doing that in life.”

Tasker will be partnering with chemistry professor Carolyn Anderson on a process for synthesizing N-alkyl pyridines. “What we’re trying to figure out is better ways to make motifs or compositions of atoms,” Anderson explained, “and the reason we want to do that really well is that these motifs have applications in the pharmaceutical industry.”

Applying for the Beckman Scholars Program meant that Tasker—who was studying the use of synthetic peptides as catalysts for a desulfurization reaction of dibenzothiophene (DBT), an aromatic sulfur-containing compound found in petroleum—had to switch research topics and professorial mentors. Tasker partnered with chemistry professor Chad Tatko on that project and, earlier this year, won a Goldwater honorable mention from the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation.

Her new research mentor has already discovered Tasker’s predilection for strategizing. “She has a knack for subtlety,” Anderson said. “This is something she’s never worked with, and yet she has been able to say, ‘What if we tried this experiment?’ and the experiment has worked several times. To have Sarah be our inaugural person (Beckman Scholar) is really appropriate. She is what people are looking for in sponsoring this program.”

Calvin was among a mere 15 institutions that were chosen by the foundation to establish a 2008 Beckman Scholars Program. Anderson called the program, “a huge validation for the community of the work we do around here. To be part of that is very exciting,” she added.

Tasker, whose semester in Mexico is allowing her to fulfill what remains of her Spanish minor, has long worked as a tutor of English as a second language; it is work she hopes to continue with immigrants from Central and South America alongside an academic or commercial research career.

She recalled getting the news that she was the first to wear the Beckman mantle: “I was checking my e-mail at the university, but I was in library, so silence, you know, silencio … . I couldn’t really scream out loud—not,” she added, “that I’m the type of person who screams out loud.”

~by Myrna Anderson, communications & marketing

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