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What’s the most feared class on a college campus? Ask around and one answer you’ll likely hear is “O-chem,” the dreaded organic chemistry. But Grace Fleury — a junior Pitt chemistry major and now a Goldwater Scholarship winner — has decided to make it her career.
“I honestly just find it so fascinating and exciting,” Fleury said. “There’s such a wide range of applications of what you can do with synthetic organic chemistry.”
Fleury is Pitt’s 64th winner of the award, which is the most prestigious scholarship aimed at STEM students and covers a year of tuition, books, fees and room and board. She’s one of 413 winners this year out of a pool of more than 5,000 applicants.
“Grace has been selected for this honor based on her extraordinary research in organic chemistry which offers a major step forward for cancer treatments based on antibody-drug conjugates,” said Nicola Foote, dean of the David C. Frederick Honors College. “I am so proud of Grace and her incredible success and know that she will use this award to continue to push the boundaries of human knowledge.”
Organic chemistry deals with molecules that contain carbon atoms, covering reactions that create medicines, plastics and other substances we rely on every day. Fleury’s love of the field started when she was able to take a half-year organic chemistry course in her senior year of high school outside of Pittsburgh, two years before most science students even encounter the topic.
Now, she’s an undergraduate researcher in the lab of Professor of Chemistry Paul Floreancig in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, where she studies a kind of molecule with multiple pieces that stick together or break apart depending on the presence of other surrounding chemicals.
One application she’s exploring is using these molecules to treat diseases. In this case, one end of the molecule contains the chemical key that gets it into a cell. “Then the other end would be some sort of therapeutic or cytotoxin, something that you want to get into just the diseased cells,” Fleury said. “Then it breaks apart and delivers the drug or whatever else you want to put in there.”
It was intimidating transitioning from classroom learning into the lab, she said, where she was met by a much bigger world of molecules and reactions. But she’s found the opportunity exciting, too — and credits the environment in her lab, for helping her find her footing as a researcher.
“There’s always more to learn, and that’s why I love doing research,” she said. “I can’t say enough good things about Dr. Floreancig. He’s incredibly supportive and his grad students are all so helpful. That’s really made all the difference.”
In between days in the lab, Fleury finds the time to be a teaching assistant for organic chemistry classes and participate in the breast cancer education and fundraising club Pink Warriors. She spent the last year as the club’s fundraising chair, and next year she’ll serve as president.
Frederick Honors College Scholar Mentor Dave Fraser worked with Fleury to develop her application materials for the Goldwater and said she has a strong sense both of research and of her broader potential impact as a scientist.
“Grace is far ahead of the curve,” Fraser said. “She is a great writer and has a mastery of the work she is doing that is far beyond her undergraduate status.”
Those are traits that will serve her well in her next steps. This summer, Fleury will participate in the Amgen Scholars Program at the California Institute of Technology, then plans to attend a PhD program and pursue a career as a professor in organic chemistry.
“I love to help people learn — I just get excited about it, and it makes me want to share it with more people,” Fleury said. “I would love to run my own lab and be able to give the same support my PI gave to other people and do this really exciting research.”
— Patrick Monahan, photography by Aimee Obidzinski