Two Pitt Students Receive 2009 Goldwater Scholarships

Issue Date: 
April 6, 2009
Andrew Savinov and Elizabeth OczypokAndrew Savinov and Elizabeth Oczypok

University of Pittsburgh Honors College students Elizabeth Oczypok, a junior majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology in the School of Arts and Sciences, and Andrew Savinov, a sophomore majoring in chemistry and molecular biology in Arts and Sciences, have been named 2009 Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship winners for their exceptional independent research in the natural sciences. Oczypok is from Sewickley, Pa., and Savinov is from Upper St. Clair, Pa. Patrick Vescovi, a Pitt junior from Richmond, Ohio, majoring in chemistry, chemical engineering, and bioengineering, received an honorable mention.

“Created to foster and encourage excellence in science and mathematics, the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship is designed to provide the nation and the world with a continuing source of highly qualified scientists, mathematicians, and engineers,” said Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg. “Being named a Goldwater Scholar is the highest honor that can be earned by an American undergraduate studying in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering. We congratulate Elizabeth and Andrew for their exemplary records of high achievement and for further strengthening Pitt’s legacy of student success.”

Commenting on the two winners, Goldwater faculty representative and Honors College Dean Alec Stewart said, “Oczypok and Savinov represent the finest kind of collaboration and integration of professional research values with undergraduate education. That’s precisely what a major research university like Pitt has to offer the intellectually talented and inquisitive student!”

Oczypok and Savinov join an elite group of Pitt alumni, some of whom have gone on to receive other prestigious postgraduate awards: Pitt’s 2007 Rhodes Scholar Daniel Armanios, 2006 Rhodes Scholar Justin Chalker, and 2007 Marshall Scholar Anna Quider were Goldwater winners. Pitt undergrads have won a total of 41 Goldwater Scholarships.

The Goldwater Scholarship was established in 1986 by the U.S. Congress in honor of then-Senator Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona to encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering. The premier undergraduate award of its type in these fields, the Goldwater Scholarship is awarded in either a student’s sophomore or junior year. The award goes toward covering tuition, room and board, fees, and books for each student recipient’s remaining period of study.

Oczypok began her research in professor of biological sciences Lewis Jacobson’s laboratory under the direction of Nathaniel Szewczyk, now an associate professor in the University of Nottingham School of Graduate Entry Medicine and Health in Derby, U.K. Oczypok’s work focuses on muscle atrophy, particularly muscle degradation in astronauts on extended space missions. She works with worms to observe the potential degradation of the muscle attachment complex—a group of proteins that anchor muscles to the hypodermis—in a microgravity environment. A worm’s complex is similar molecularly to human focal adhesions. Oczypok studies the complex’s role in regulating degradation in order to identify techniques to help inhibit muscle protein degradation.

In 2006, worms from Jacobson’s lab left for a six-month stay on the International Space Station; Oczypok was able to view them in real time. In 2007, she traveled with Szewczyk to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center and to Edwards Air Force Base in California to collect the experimental samples from the returning space shuttle. She found that the worms experienced normal growth, development, and muscle contraction. In summer 2008, Oczypok studied in the University of Nottingham’s School of Graduate Entry Medicine and Health on a Biochemical Society Studentship that allowed her to expand her views to include human muscle. She also received a European Space Agency (ESA) Young Researcher Award to present her work at an ESA conference in France.

Oczypok’s career goal is to obtain an MD/PhD degree in the biomedical sciences. She plans to study the mechanisms of a disease through molecular biology and use this knowledge to explore possible disease preventions or treatments. Her work at the University of Nottingham provided a blend of clinical and scientific experiences, bringing her to the realization that “helping others did not just mean treating patients in the clinic, but it also meant using my knowledge of molecular biology to tackle the underlying problems of debilitating diseases,” Oczypok said.

Savinov began doing laboratory research after having taken an entry-level biology course at Carnegie Mellon University as a high school student during the summer of 2006. Professor David Hackney, who taught the course, invited Savinov to work in his laboratory the following summer. Savinov studied the motility produced by the motor protein kinesin in an in-vitro reconstituted system and continued to work part-time in Hackney’s lab until beginning his undergraduate studies at Pitt as a Chancellor’s Scholar.

In summer 2008, under the direction of Graham Hatfull—Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professor, and chair of Pitt’s Department of Biological Sciences—Savinov investigated a mycobacteriophage (a tiny virus that infects bacteria) known as Bxb1 and the role of a particular protein in how the phage reproduces inside an infected bacterium. He plans to expand his work in Fall 2009 by looking into whether the protein performs other important and perhaps more general functions as a biological regulator.

This past summer, Savinov received an HHMI Undergraduate Fellowship. His future plans are to conduct research on interesting biological processes using both biochemical and biophysical methods. He is especially interested in studying DNA recombination and how it is regulated, regulatory protein interactions and conformational changes, and how regulatory processes can produce changes at the cellular level.

Savinov’s goal is to earn a PhD degree in biochemistry with plans to do research in molecular biology and biochemistry and to teach at the university level.