Zayda Dominick has some advice for first-year college students about getting involved in undergraduate research: Don’t wait. Try it.
“I guess I never really thought of myself as the voice of research, nor did I ever think I’d end up in this situation at all. My whole thing was to try everything,” said Dominick, a sophomore biochemistry major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “I had an inclination that I thought it would be cool, so I simply was like, ‘Let’s try it, and if it’s not cool, move on to something else.’
“I tried it and realized how much I absolutely loved it.”
In late October, Dominick and 13 other UTC undergraduates, accompanied by faculty from the Department of Chemistry and Physics, had the opportunity to present the results of their research at the Southeastern Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society—known as SERMACS—in Durham, North Carolina.
Dominick, who presented research she began during her freshman year titled “Understanding how NtrZ affects NtrY in Caulobacter crescentus,” received an undergraduate poster award.
Her faculty mentor is UTC Assistant Professor of Biochemistry Benjamin Stein.
“Zayda’s great. She came in as a freshman excited for research knowing she wanted to venture into the scientific unknown. She has since really been dedicated and already has an experimental mindset,” Stein said.
“She put a lot of work into making a really beautiful poster to present her data. It definitely paid off.”
Dominick explained that bacteria was the focus of the research, as she studied how they respond to different environmental changes.
“There are specific proteins involved in that,” she said, “so certain proteins will regulate responses. I just study the mechanisms of how those proteins work together to cause a response.”
Dominick, who said her plans include pursuing a Doctorate of Medicine and Philosophy (MD-PhD) dual doctoral degree for physician–scientists, was asked what excited her about this type of research.
“The central dogma of chemistry is structure equals function,” she said, “so I love studying how the structures of these proteins actually drive certain functions and mechanisms. It drives survival and how all these things can change and create a living organism, so I like that a lot.”
During her early UTC career, Dominick—a 2022 graduate of Hardin Valley Academy in Knoxville, Tennessee—has been involved in mentoring as a Peer-Led Team Learning Leader and advising high school students as part of this summer’s American Chemical Society Summer Experiences for the Economically Disadvantaged project.
As she has already discovered, it’s never too early to start research.
“I did not think that I wanted to do research as much as I ended up wanting to. I thought it would be cool to try, so I talked to a bunch of professors about it, got involved with Dr. Stein, and he was so nice to let me in his lab,” she said. “He was so patient with me to be able to teach me everything that I needed to know freshman year when I had no experience whatsoever—and I realized how much I absolutely loved it.”
It doesn’t hurt when the research gets recognized.
“It’s extremely exciting when you get good results on your projects,” Stein said, “but when they come from a trainee, that excitement gets amplified because they’re getting results and they’re seeing the sort of high of when science works and you figure stuff out.
“It’s just great to see and they get encouraged. They want to keep going, and it’s the kind of thing that keeps them in science.”
Other UTC student poster presenters at SERMACS included:
- Lillian Wooten, “Electrophoretic studies of naphthoquinone-induced modification of lysozyme at various pH,” mentor—Dr. Jisook Kim
- Sam Robinson, “Biomimetic design of mechanochromic single chain nanoparticle polymer networks,” mentor—Dr. Meredith Barbee
- Kelly Hooper, “Synthesizing single chain polymer nanoparticle networks,” mentor—Dr. Meredith Barbee
- Dallas Donovan, “Synthesizing single chain polymer nanoparticle networks by reinitiating raft—Dr. Meredith Barbee
- Cheyenne Higgs and Matthew Akama, “The development of N,N-trans-spanning ligands,” mentors—Luke Hair, Marisa James, Dr. Colin McMillen and Dr. Jared Pienkos
- Nehemiah Antoine, “Alkynyl iodide-based halogen-bonding with isocyanides to improve utility,” mentors—Marisa James, Dr. Keenan Dungey and Dr. Jared Pienkos
- Ethan Eakins, “Exploration of a new intermolecular photo-dehydro-Diels-Alder reaction,” mentor—Dr. Wang-Yong Yang
- Allison Boers, “Observing refractive changes in fluids through use of a schlieren system outdoors,” mentor—Dr. Han Park
- Laurel Washburn, “Theoretical studies of hydrogen abstraction from fluorinated acetone and fluorinated acetaldehyde,” mentor—Dr. Titus Albu
- Ronan Lanam, “Effect of NtrX phosphorylation on DNA binding in Caulobacter crescentus,” mentor—Dr. Benjamin Stein
- Baker Garrison, “Untargeted metabolomics approach for the screening of endometrial cancer,” mentors—Dr. Kristopher Amrhein, Dr. Sean Richards, Dr. Jacobo Troisi, Dr. Martina Lombardi and Dr. Steven Symes
- Ethan Duck, “Study of small molecule-induced CCG repeat contraction,” mentor—Dr. Wang-Yong Yang
In addition to their chemistry focus, Robinson and Antoine are members of the UTC Honors College.
The Office for Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavor (URaCE) provided financial support for the SERMACS trip. The students who traveled to North Carolina are required to present at the 2024 UTC Spring Research and Arts Conference.
“The Department of Chemistry and Physics emphasizes the high-impact learning practice of undergraduate research in our curriculum,” said Dr. Keenan Dungey, head of the department and one of the faculty members accompanying the students. “Students earn college credit for this experiential learning opportunity with one-on-one mentoring by our research faculty.”
Additionally, Dungey said, the department has sponsored a summer Undergraduate Research Program for students with 10 weeks of full-time paid internships. Dominick was one of 23 UTC students who participated this summer.