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Geneseo's Undergraduate Researchers Are Hands-On

L to R: Barnabas Gikonyo, director of introductory chemistry labs and lecture; Wady Jacoby '21; Laura Williams '21; Professor Kevin Militello (SUNY Geneseo/Keith Walters '11)

A hallmark for SUNY Geneseo is the undergraduate research opportunities that students like biochemistry majors Laura Williams ’21 from Pittsford, NY, and Wady Jacoby '21, Fairport, NY, undertake with faculty mentors. Approximately 450 students per year earn directed study academic credit for research, and up to 70 conduct summer research through internal and externally funded grants. Last year, more than 250 student research and travel grants, assistantships, and fellowships were supported by the Geneseo Foundation, Student Association, and endowments.

Williams aspires to earn an MD-PhD dual degree in cellular and molecular medicine to study cancer—potentially the epigenetic regulation of cancer stem cells—at the University of Rochester or Tulane University. “I have conducted genetics research here at Geneseo with Professor Militello, and I am very interested in human neurodegenerative disease using stem cells,” Williams said.

Kevin Militello, professor of biology, holds a PhD in microbiology and has been a Geneseo faculty member since 2005. His research explores the relationship between the modified DNA base 5-methylcytosine and gene transcription in organisms. In 2017, Militello secured a National Institute of Health R15 grant focusing on RNA modifications of Trypanosoma brucei, the causative agent of Human African Trypanosomiasis (African Sleeping Sickness). In conjunction with the grant, Williams’ research project has focused on one putative RNA methyltransferase called CRMT4.

“I realized right away that Laura was a talented student as she enjoys the challenges of science,” said Militello. “She is a good laboratory citizen, treating her fellow researchers with respect, and has done an excellent job with our project by battling though many difficult experiments.” 

Jacoby plans to go to medical school to pursue a career as an MD-PhD researcher in the field of molecular biology. “I hope to join the researchers who are moving one step closer to unscrambling new therapies for complex neurological disorders such as ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and epilepsy.”

Through his Geneseo research experience with Barnabas Gikonyo, director of introductory chemistry labs and lecturer, Jacoby feels more than prepared to excel in his chosen field. “Dr. Gikonyo has a unique saying that conveys a lifetime of wisdom, yet consists of only two words: ‘Stay Happy,’” he said. “His mentorship has altered the trajectory of my life to a more positive direction. I know he’s had this effect on many of his students before me, and he will continue to do so in the future.”

Gikonyo holds a PhD in organic and materials chemistry studying the syntheses, characterization, functionalization, and application of various polymeric materials as “biomaterial bridging surfaces” for the repair of spinal cord injuries. Currently, he is conducting research on the functionalization and use of osteoconductive cements for the repair of critical sized bone defects and fractures.

“Wady is one of the most enthusiastic, excellent, and steadfast students that I have ever had the chance to work with. His passion for distinction in academics, research, teaching, and peer mentorship makes him one-of-a-kind,” Gikonyo said. “His research explores maximizing lipid content within Chlorella algae cells for biodiesel production. The overarching goal of this work is to formulate ways to enhance the general chemistry lab curriculum by gradually introducing topics on renewable energy and good stewardship of the environment.”

For the past ten years, Geneseo has finished either first or second in the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Undergraduate Teaching rankings among regional universities in the North in its Best Colleges guidebook. A list of current Geneseo undergraduate research projects in chemistry and biology can be found at Biochemistry Research Opportunities.

—Michael Mills