Ashley Vincent '17 admits that she used to score average grades in chemistry while in high school. “The reason why I chose chemistry as a major is slightly unconventional. Most students major in their strongest subject areas, but chemistry wasn’t really one of my best subjects in high school. I applied to colleges as a prospective chemistry major because of my interest in the field, despite knowing that I’d probably have to make a greater effort than others to develop my skills.”
During her freshman year at Cornell, Vincent joined Alpha Chi Sigma, a century-old chemistry fraternity. “I love the interactions we have during our meetings. Our members are all majoring in fields related to chemistry, and the engagement that I’ve had during my time in the fraternity has been priceless.” These engagements include expositions at the Ithaca Sciencenter as well as access to professional networking sessions and research opportunities across the Cornell community.
A fraternity member upon graduating in 2014 contacted Vincent, informing her of the vacancy she’d left at Kyle Lancaster’s lab, Chemistry. Vincent applied for the position and began working in the summer of her sophomore year. “The initial learning curve of the research process is pretty steep, and I thought it’d be better to start in the summer, when I had more time to learn the ropes. Of course, it became an easier process from then on.”
Modern scientific research is increasingly highlighting the presence of archaea (or archaebacterial, bacteria-like organisms but with different molecular structures) as the dominant nitrifying organisms in both marine and terrestrial environments. Their biochemistry, however, is largely unknown. The Lancaster lab is working to provide an updated body of knowledge about biological ammonia oxidation, which can be applied across different scientific fields.
Working with graduate chemical biologists in the biochemistry section of Lancaster’s lab, Vincent studies the metabolism used by nitrifying microbes to extract energy from ammonia. Vincent's particular enzyme is involved in oxidation of hydroxylamine, a key energy-rich intermediate produced by these organisms.
Ideally the lab would like to analyze each enzyme present within the oxidation cycle in isolation. However, Vincent says that it’s an extremely difficult task to spectroscopically study each enzyme in nitrifying microbes. “Frequent complications occur, relating to incompatible heme types and the loss of signals from the active sites, so we have to look at creative solutions to execute the process.” Vincent and her team members therefore study similar enzymes that are present outside the cycle. They study cyt P460, an enzyme similar to HAO and analyze the mechanism of HAO oxidation through the enzyme.
“We tend to take for granted the research opportunities and the fact that we’ve got daily access to a Nobel laureate and so many other great researchers. It still amazes me.”
While Vincent acknowledges that the quality of research is dependent on how much time one puts in, she also points out that there are many uncontrollable variables present in the entire process. “Initially, all our research experiments involve trial and error. We might begin working with an enzyme only to then realize it’s unstable and impossible to work with. But there’s no way of knowing this beforehand.”
A Research Experience with Many Benefits
Interestingly though, the unpredictability also comprises her favorite aspect of the process. “I’m always open to learning new things, not just in chemistry, but also from other subject areas like biochemistry and physics. Understanding how things work on a fundamental level fascinates me.”
Through the course of the two years she’s spent at the Lancaster lab, Vincent has developed close friendships with several researchers. On Tuesdays each subgroup meets for lunch, and every group member presents a slideshow, explaining their weekly progress. “It’s a great activity in terms of the interaction regarding research, and it helps me catch up with my group members, too.” As for assistance with her research, the first person Vincent usually approaches is postdoctoral associate Jonathan Caranto. Vincent describes him as a diligent researcher, frequently the first researcher to enter the lab in the morning. “He’s in charge of introducing the new researchers in the biochemistry section to our methods, so I acquired most of my specific research skills from him. He’s great with providing feedback and direction on my research.”
Vincent says that juggling her extensive research commitments with courses is often an arduous task, but she appreciates the depth of engagement and support provided by Lancaster. She remembers one particular semester during her junior year when she began wondering if she could keep up with her work schedule. “I was taking several honors classes and had four credits worth of research on top of that. Professor Lancaster was really the one who’d remind me to relax, and I’ve found his advice useful beyond the research process.”
When she looks back on the college application process now, Vincent is certain she made the right choice. “In the end, I was choosing between Amherst and Cornell. Amherst is a great school, but for a research-oriented subject like chemistry, Cornell seemed a much better fit.” She’s always reminded of the quality of the faculty at Cornell. “We tend to take for granted the research opportunities and the fact that we’ve got daily access to a Nobel laureate and so many other great researchers. It still amazes me.”
After graduating this summer, Vincent plans to take a gap year during which she is looking to work in the medical sector. Following her gap year, she will pursue a medical degree.