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Undergraduates Honored for Diverse Research

Fletcher awards recognize exceptional research of three seniors


EVANSTON, Ill. --- Three seniors whose summer work exemplifies the wide range of undergraduate research supported by Northwestern University were honored at a luncheon Dec. 3.

Alex Benjamin, Joseph Hurley and Alexander Nitkin, were honored with Fletcher Undergraduate Research Grant prizes, administered annually by Northwestern’s Office of Undergraduate Research.

In their research, Benjamin explored the human aspects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster to craft an original play, Hurley investigated how copper enters the cells of \"methane-eating\" bacteria and Nitkin examined the effects of Chicago Public School closures in 2013.

Provost Dan Linzer, Ronald Braeutigam, associate provost for undergraduate education, and Neal Blair, chair of the Undergraduate Research Grant review committee, presented the students with award certificates.

“These students show the incredible range of projects that are getting funding by the Office of Undergraduate Research,” said Peter Civetta, director of the office.  

Funded by the Fletcher Family Foundation, the $250 Fletcher prizes were presented to the three undergraduates for research they did this summer with support from Northwestern Undergraduate Research Grants. The students’ faculty advisers also received the Karl Rosengren Faculty Mentoring Award, including $250, in recognition of their work with the students. The mentoring award is named for the long-time Undergraduate Research Grants review committee chair, who left Northwestern last summer.

“These experiences help students transition out of school and into the skills they need to succeed in the rest of their lives,” Civetta said.

“It is experiential learning at its best because it pairs faculty wisdom with student ingenuity,” he said. “Students learn to take ownership of their education and can begin to achieve their own goals.”

About the 2014 Honorees

Alex Benjamin, a senior studying theatre and marketing, researched the human aspects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster -- an unprecedented atomic explosion on the border of Ukraine and Russia that released radiation equaling hundreds of thousands of times the amount released from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

Benjamin sought personal narratives of Chernobyl residents, accounts from scientists and government workers at the scene and socioeconomic information about eastern Europe and Russia to craft the original play “Staging Chernobyl: The Regeneration of a Wasteland.” In the process, he uncovered illuminating insights into the political intrigue and unanswered questions surrounding the catastrophe, information which will greatly affect future drafts of the play. Benjamin’s project was sponsored by Paul Edwards, associate professor of performance studies in the School of Communication.

Joseph Hurley’s summer research focused on how copper enters the cells of methanotrophic or “methane-eating” bacteria. These bacteria are becoming increasingly interesting to researchers as a means of generating useful commercial products from natural gas feedstocks. Copper is an essential cofactor in methanotrophs’ predominant methane-converting enzyme, but the mechanics of how copper enters this enzyme are still a mystery.

Over the course of the summer, Hurley took a biochemical approach to studying several proteins thought to play a role in methanotroph copper acquisition. His research resulted in preliminary data about the copper uptake pathway, including a high-resolution crystal structure of the copper chaperone CopC from methanotrophic bacterium Methylosinus trichosporium. He also developed a method for quantifying methane-oxidizing activity that is approximately 100 times more sensitive than any previously published methods. His documentation of this method is currently being prepared for publication. Hurley worked with Amy Rosenzweig, Weinberg Family Distinguished Professor of Life Sciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Alexander Nitkin, a senior studying journalism and international studies, examined the effects of Chicago's closure of more than 50 public schools across the city in 2013 -- the largest unilateral school closing in American history. He visited closed schools and attended community meetings to find stories that had been missed in media coverage of the Chicago Public School system. He wrote about clashes over school facilities between aldermen and their local communities in Kenwood and Washington Park and made a comprehensive comparison between public school policies in Chicago and San Diego. Nitkin’s work was sponsored by Eric Ferkenhoff, assistant professor in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

The Undergraduate Research Grants committee, made up of faculty from across Northwestern, reviewed nominations for the Fletcher Awards, taking into consideration the quality of the initial proposal, the final research findings, the statements of the faculty sponsor and the opinions of the original reviewers of the proposal.

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