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Undergraduate research earns student a Department of Homeland Security scholarship


BLACKSBURG, Va., Nov. 12, 2003 – Matthew Shoulders of Craig County, Va., a chemistry major in the College of Science at Virginia Tech, is one of 101 students nationwide to receive a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Scholarship.

Shoulders' early interest in chemistry came from his grandfather, Donald Bettinger, a professor at Ohio Northern University and Alice Lloyd College. "He talked a lot about science and chemistry when he visited us," Shoulders said. "Many of his students went on to medical school."

Later, Shoulders and other home-schooled students studied chemistry with Jim Fuller, a research scientist with the Sustainable Engineered Materials Institute in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech. "He opened a world to us that few people see. It was incredible," Shoulders said.

The Homeland Scholars and Fellows Program is open to all students in the United States interested in pursuing scientific and technological innovations that can benefit homeland security. The DHS received nearly 2,500 applications for the scholarships. Students from engineering disciplines comprised about one-third of the awards, followed by computer science and math, psychology and social sciences."Homeland security-based research has been an interest of mine since 9/11," Shoulders said. "When I go to graduate school, my research will be bioorganic chemistry and synthetic organic chemistry, and I will be thinking of applications relevant to protection against terrorism."

For now, the Virginia Tech senior is doing biomimetics research with Associate Professor of Chemistry Felicia A. Etzkorn. He is creating a synthetic version of collagen, the fibrous structural protein in connective tissue. Etzkorn described Shoulders as "awesome" and said, "Even though, with his course load, he doesn't have the same amount of time to devote to research, the quality of his work is as good as a graduate student's work and is important to the group's goals."

One of the Etzkorn research group's goals is to develop an improved form of collagen that might be used to treat arthritis and to deliver medicine to a disease site within the body. The natural collagen molecule is made up of three amino acids with a triple helix structure, Shoulders explained. However, the unstable amide bonds in the molecule are easily broken by enzymes frequently present with collagen. "We want to form a polymer using the three amino acids and a new bond, but we don't know yet whether such a polymer will form the triple helix," Shoulders said. "It's very early. I've only been working on this for about a semester."

One of Shoulder's goals is to gain experience in biochemistry. The group's goal is to prepare a more stable collagen-like molecule. "The result could be a longer polymer chain -- a polymer with a high molecular weight," Shoulders said.

While his undergraduate research is not specific to homeland security, Shoulders said it was important to his qualification for the scholarship because, "It provides me with a solid background. DHS is looking for good students in science-based areas with an interest in careers in homeland security. If there is something I can do to keep a terrorist from succeeding, it would be more than worth it."

The son of Craig and Nancy Shoulders, and grandson of Mrs. Billye Shoulders of Providence, Ky., Matthew Shoulders lived in Blacksburg until he was 12, when his family moved to Craig County. With his father an associate professor in accounting and information systems at Virginia Tech, Shoulders said he "was definitely interested in Tech" as an undergraduate. But he doesn't know yet where he will go to graduate school when he receives his bachelor's degree in May.

The College of Science at Virginia Tech gives students a comprehensive foundation in the scientific method. Outstanding faculty members teach courses and conduct research in biology, chemistry, economics, geosciences, mathematics, physics, psychology, and statistics. The college is dedicated to fostering a research intensive environment and offers programs in nano-scale and biological sciences, and in information theory and science, and supports research centers - in such areas as biomedical and public health sciences, and critical technology and applied science - that encompass other colleges at the university. The College of Science also houses programs in pre-medicine and scientific law.



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